Ethics of the Arpaio Pardon

After seeing what a professional dominatrix had to say about Trump pardoning former Mericopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, I decided to see what professional ethicist Jack Marshall had to say. I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Is the balance between profiling, which in such situations is a valuable law-enforcement tool, and the importance of equal treatment under the law a difficult one legally and ethically? Yes. Does a sheriff have the right and authority to ignore the way this balance is decided once legal authorities define it?


Is the determination of this balance often polluted by ideological biases, in this case, against enforcement of immigration laws?


“Ideological biases.” That’s what you call someone else’s principles when you don’t like them. Jack is fond of accusing people of bias.

Do Donald Trump, and his supporters, and those Americans who may not be his supporters but who agree that allowing foreign citizens to breach our borders at will without legal penalties is certifiably insane, believe that Arpaio’s position on illegal immigration is essentially correct and just?


Does that have anything to do with the results of the trial that found him guilty of contempt of court?


Nonetheless, did his ham-handed methods give ammunition to open-borders, pro-illegal immigration, race-baiting activists […]


Is sending Arpaio to jail a political imprisonment?

Yes, although he made it easy to justify on non-political grounds.

Are political prisoners the ideal objects of Presidential pardons?


Good God, it’s crazy to call Arpaio a political prisoner. A judge ordered him to stop doing something, and he went ahead and did it anyway, which bought him a contempt charge. It was pretty straightforward. Sure, there are people who didn’t like him for political reasons (I’m one of them), but that’s true of every elected official.  This is nonsense.

Also, just for the record, it’s misleading to call someone a “political prisoner” when they’re not, you know, in prison.

Would pardoning him send dangerous messages (it’s OK to violate judicial orders you think are wrong; the ends justifies the means; Presidents should meddle in local law enforcement, “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice”) as well as defensible ones (judges and elected official enabling illegal immigration are a threat to the rule of law; Joe is an old man with a long record of public service who deserves mercy even though he was wrong…)


Invoking Arpaio’s record of public service is kind of laughable when it’s his failure to follow the rules of that service that got him his conviction. And it’s unreal that Jack would mention the rule of law without mentioning the awful damage that Arpaio’s pardon does to the rule of law. Arpaio is a thug, and Trump’s pardon sends a message to law enforcement thugs everywhere that the federal government is going to give them a pass. This is not even the first time Trump has sent that message, and it doesn’t get better with repetition.


Will such a pardon, especially as the news media is again spinning to make the case that Trump is sympathetic with xenophobes and white nationalists, further inflame an overly emotional debate that needs to be calmed, not exacerbated?

God, yes.

Or to put that a different way: Evidence that Trump is sympathetic to xenophobes and white nationalists tends to help make the case that Trump is sympathetic to xenophobes and white nationalists.

Sure enough, Democrats, Trump-haters like Senator John McCain and my echo-chamber Facebook friends are denouncing the pardon as if the President had loosed Hannibal Lector on the world.

The books area little vague, but I’m pretty sure Hannibal Lector didn’t kill anywhere near as many people as have died in Arpaio’s jails.

In doing so, they really look ridiculous, and might as well be wearing  “I hate Donald Trump and will scream bloody murder no matter what he does” in neon on their heads.

I don’t just hate Trump, I hate Arpaio too, and have for a long time. That Trump thinks Arpaio is a great example of American law enforcement is more than a little worrisome. Ditto for Arpaio’s brother-from-another-mother, Sheriff David Clarke.

Especially for Democrats, who have argued that non-violent criminals shouldn’t be imprisoned at all when they are young and black, the argument that an 85 year old man’s under-two year maximum sentence is an outrageous object of Presidential mercy and grace—that’s what a pardon is, you know–is the height of partisan hypocrisy.

Trump didn’t pardon Arpaio out of mercy for an old man. He as much as said he thinks Arpaio was convicted for “doing his job.” Trump pardoned Arpaio because he has no problem with a Sheriff who people’s rights and a court order to harass immigrants. Trump pardoned Arpaio because he likes “tough” cops.

The fact that Arpaio is 85 alone justifies a pardon by the standards Presidents have used since the beginning of the office.

Presidents don’t pardon every elderly prison inmate. They exercise discretion, and we can judge them on that discretion. Besides, if Trump was really concerned about Arpaio’s ability to survive prison, he could have commuted the sentence rather than granting a pardon.

Furthermore, the Federal Bureau of Prisons already has a compassionate release program to address situations like this. Prisoners who develop serious health problems are eligible, and prisoners over the age of 65 may request compassionate release after serving 50% of their sentence.

For that matter, we don’t even know what Arpaio’s sentence would have been. Judges take circumstances into account. He might not have gone to prison at all. But he would still have the conviction for contempt.

That his sentence is relatively short—many, many prisoners with far longer sentences have been pardoned by Trump’s predecessors–makes the pardon, if ill-considered, also de minimus, especially since there is no chance, literally none, that the old man, now out of office and retired, will have an opportunity to repeat the crime he was convicted of committing.

This is disingenuous. One of the purposes of punishment is to deter other people from committing the same crime. Pardoning Arpaio undermines this deterrence because it suggests to other people, including other chief law enforcement officers, that they can defy federal judges and federal law if President Trump likes them.

A pardon is an act of grace by which an offender is released from the consequences of his offense, according to the U.S. Justice Department’s website. It does not say that the offender was not guilty, or that the law that was violated can be breached at will.

But doesn’t it? If the President has stoked anti-immigrant fervor, and if he has championed Arpaio-style “tough” policing, then doesn’t pardoning Arpaio imply that Trump thinks it’s okay to break the law to do that?

They want him to be metaphorically hung up by his heels to appease their open-border, pro-illegal immigration base, making the fervor to punish him purely political, and having little to do with respect for the rule of law, which their own position on illegal immigration proves that they don’t respect themselves.

Rule of law is usually presented as being in contrast to rule by arbitrary exercise of power. Whether the government helps you or punishes you should depend on whether you follow a set of explicit rules, not on how much you are liked or disliked by the people wielding power. Thus the rule of law is undermined by the fact that Trump’s first and only Presidential pardon went to one of his most prominent campaign supporters.

(Jack used to talk a lot about the importance of avoiding the appearance of impropriety, even when there’s no actual impropriety, yet there’s no mention of that in anything he’s written about the pardon.)

It seems clear that Jack is getting hung up in immigration issues, but there’s a lot more wrong with Sheriff Joe Arpaio than the immigration-related activities involved in the contempt charge.

  • Arpaio’s office has botched a lot of sex crime investigations, either doing a sloppy job or not working them at all.
  • Arpaio proudly treated his prisoners terribly, sometimes serving them spoiled food and offering substandard medical care.
  • Arpaio setup a temporary “tent city” outdoor jail that operated for something like 20 years in the sweltering Arizona sun, subjecting prisoners to unsafe temperatures, sometimes with lethal results.
  • Arpaio did very little to discipline guards who mistreated prisoners in his jails, which he himself referred to as “concentration camps.”
  • Arpaio used his police force to intimidate his enemies. He jailed reporters who were critical of him, and launched a corruption investigation against a judge who ruled against him.
  • Then there’s the whole fake assassination plot against him, which put an innocent man in jail for 4 years.
  • Or the puppy-burning incident.

That’s the guy Trump pardoned. That’s the guy Jack is defending.

Let me be clear. This isn’t a Rationalization #22 “it isn’t the worst thing” defense of the pardon. It is a “the attacks on this pardon are wildly disproportionate to its reality, and thus transparent political theater” indictment of the pardon’s critics. Almost every pardon can be called a rejection of the “rule of law,” if you don’t understand what the pardon power is, and politicians who have been undermining respect for the very laws that Arpaio went over-board enforcing are the last people on earth who should make that argument. They are ridiculous in their hypocrisy.

I’m not sure what that is, but if it isn’t “it isn’t the worst thing” or “everybody does it” then it’s an ad hominem attack. Whether Trump’s critics are right or wrong about the pardon has nothing to do with whether they are hypocrites. A murderer who declares that “murder is bad” is not wrong.

Joe Arpaio was an arrogant, grandstanding bully and thug, and unworthy of his badge. I wouldn’t have pardoned him despite his age, but there were some good reasons for Trump to do so. It was almost worth doing just to prompt Trump’s foes and pro illegal immigration hypocrites into embarrassing themselves.

That’s a terrible reason for pardoning someone.

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