The Constitution vests the president with the power to pardon anyone he or she wishes. It’s one of the clearest authorities the Founders established.
As with any power granted an elected official, the ability to issue a pardon must be used wisely and respectfully. As a governor, I had similar authority. A process was in place to consider requests for clemency and insure that pardons were granted carefully and appropriately.
There is a similar process in place for the occupant of the White House. Many deserving applicants spend years working to have their often compelling cases heard. But ultimately, the president clearly has the power to wake up, get on Twitter, and pardon someone.
Or he has the latitude to announce a pardon on a Friday afternoon as a Hurricane is bearing down on millions of Americans. He can do that just because he feels like it.
And every president probably pardons a convict or two who may not deserve it, or at least don’t appear to be deserving.
Issuing a pardon and calling the criminal a hero
But rarely does a president not only issue a pardon, but extol the virtues of the lucky criminal, even calling him a hero.
That’s exactly what President Trump did last Friday when he announced the pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
It wasn’t just a pardon. It was a coronation. It was a full-throated endorsement of the policies and tactics that Sheriff Joe employed for years to codify prejudice, make profiling not only acceptable, but mandatory, and most significantly, fuel the anti-immigrant fervor that has become a staple for far too many politicians.
When the courts told Arpaio to stop his unconstitutional practices, he openly and enthusiastically defied them. That defiance of the “rule of law” — the same “rule of law” he used for years to justify his infamous crackdowns on undocumented immigrants — is what ultimately made him a convict.
Did Sheriff Arpaio ever express any remorse or respect for that “rule of law”? No. He famously used his defiance to raise money, frequent cable news and take every opportunity to add to his personal legend.
This from a guy who was sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution and the laws of the land.
On the heels of Charlottesville, pardoning Arpaio is the wrong thing to do
Reasonable people can disagree about immigration policy, and we can certainly debate whether an 85-year-old man who was thrown out of office by the voters should actually serve jail time. But to pardon him? To embrace a vision of America in which the government could send its agents to cruise neighborhoods demanding to “see your papers” just because you happen to be Hispanic?
On the heels of a deeply disturbing display of hate by white supremacists in Charlottesville, pardoning Joe Arpaio is just the wrong thing to do — on many levels.
It’s not just about Arpaio. It’s about the signal it sends on behalf of the U.S. Government. It says it’s not only OK to profile and persecute, but that an elected official who proudly flaunted constitutional and civil rights is a hero.
And Sheriff Joe? He’s now talking about running for the U.S. Senate. Why shouldn’t he? The president of the United States just told the entire world what a great American he is.
There are many individuals sitting in prisons today or dealing with the burdens of criminal records who probably should be pardoned, for the reasons the Founders envisioned when they vested such a clear authority in the president.
Today, especially, as the nation wrestles with the divisions and, yes, bigotry that politicians on all sides are exploiting, Joe Arpaio isn’t one of those deserving individuals.
(Photo of Joe Arpaio speaking at the Arizona Republican Party election victory party in Phoenix in November 2014 by Gage Skidmore used with permission.)