Legal activists have urged the Department of Justice to block President Donald Trump's pardon for Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. The groups asserted that Trump's pardon was not constitutional because Arpaio was found in contempt of court for violating citizens' civil rights.
On Aug. 30, the Protect Democracy Project submitted a letter to the Public Integrity Section and Criminal Division of the DOJ, calling on officials to reverse the Arpaio pardon. The Protect Democracy Project is comprised of several former White House attorneys. Members of the Free Speech for the People, an organization focused on the First Amendment, also signed onto the letter, Law Newz reports.
"While the Constitution's pardon power is broad, it is not unlimited ... for due process and judicial review to function, courts must be able to restrain government officials," the letter stated.
On Aug. 25, Trump announced that he would pardon Arpaio, who faced up to six months in jail for violating a court order. The move ignited fierce controversy.
Arpaio served as the sheriff of Maricopa County from 1993 until November 2016, when he lost a re-election bid. From the beginning of his career, Arpaio drew criticism for placing his inmates in an outdoor housing facility known as "Tent City," where they resided in sweltering Arizona heat. The law enforcement official used controversial punitive techniques, such as curbing the amount of meals served to inmates, forcing male inmates to wear pink underwear, and instituting chain gains. Arpaio also had cameras placed in the facility, including in female inmates' bathrooms, and had the footage streamed online, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In 2012, the DOJ filed a lawsuit against Arpaio, alleging that he was ordering his officers to detain Latino residents in Maricopa County based only on the suspicion that they were undocumented. In 2013, a federal judge ruled that Arpaio was guilty of racial profiling and ordered him to cease such practices. In 2016, Arpaio was charged with contempt of court for disregarding the judge's order.
On July 31, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton found Arpaio guilty of criminal contempt. Arpaio's attorneys filed an appeal, arguing that the former sheriff's case should have been decided by a jury, according to the Phoenix New Times.
The White House announced Trump's pardon for Arpaio on the same day that a Category 4 hurricane was approaching on Texas. On Aug. 28, the president was asked why he chose to pardon Arpaio during a day of national crisis.
"I assumed the ratings would be far higher," Trump responded, according to HuffPost. The president added that he believed Arpaio was "strong on borders and strong on illegal immigration ... and I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly."
The Protect Democracy Project's letter to the DOJ noted that while there is precedent for a presidential pardon of a person who had been convicted of criminal contempt, there is no precedent for pardoning a person for infringing on citizens' civil rights.
"The president can't use the pardon power to immunize lawless officials from consequences for violating people's constitutional rights," Ron Fein, the legal director of Free Speech for People, told the Washington Post.
Arpaio's attorneys have asked for Judge Bolton to throw his conviction out in light of the presidential pardon. Bolton has canceled a sentencing hearing for the former sheriff but has declined to throw out the conviction, requesting that the DOJ to provide a reason for her to do so.