Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is joined by Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio at a campaign event in Marshalltown, Iowa, in January 2016. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
The Justice Department on Monday said in a court filing it agrees a judge should erase her finding that former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio violated a court order and was guilty of criminal contempt — a move that would have virtually no practical impact but which Arpaio considers a symbol of vindication.
In a short court filing, attorneys from the Justice Department's public integrity section wrote that because President Trump's pardon of Arpaio — which came before he was sentenced and a final judgment issued in his case — guaranteed he would face no consequences from the verdict against him, "the government agrees that the Court should vacate all orders and dismiss the case as moot."
Arpaio himself had asked for such a result after Trump pardoned him last month, but the judge in the case declined to do before an Oct. 4 hearing on the matter.
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"My only reaction is that the law is clear on it, and the court has an obligation to follow the law," Jack Wilenchik, an attorney for Arpaio, said Monday. "If not for the pardon, we would have appealed this and obtained a jury and acquittal, but at this point, the case is moot, and we have no ability to do that."
Arpaio, 85, was found guilty of criminal contempt in July for ignoring a judge's order to stop detaining people because he merely suspected them of being undocumented immigrants. But before he could be sentenced — and with Arpaio publicly vowing to appeal — Trump granted him a pardon.
That pardon guaranteed Arpaio, a noted ally of Trump whose extreme stance on immigration made him a household name, would face no punishment for being found guilty. But his attorney said having a judge take the technical step of dismissing her finding against him was a "matter of clearing his name."
A pardon does not instantly undo a guilty finding, and in most cases, the court record is left undisturbed. That is because the vast majority of presidential pardons are issued long after people are convicted and sentenced, and pardons generally serve to forgive people rather than to erase what they have done. Some outside groups and lawyers have sought to intervene in Arpaio's case, arguing the pardon is unconstitutional and the guilty finding should not be vacated.
But because Arpaio's case was in the unusual status of not being totally resolved, Arpaio's lawyers argued, case law suggested it should be dismissed — and previous orders undone — because of the president's action.
"Because the President issued a pardon before sentencing and judgment — and clearly, before the conclusion of any appeals — the Court is obligated to vacate its verdict and all other orders in this matter, and to dismiss the case with prejudice," Arpaio's attorneys wrote in a filing. "Because Defendant will never have the benefit or opportunity to seek a reversal of the court's verdict through appeal (and a retrial by jury), it is only fair that the Court vacate its verdict and all other rulings in the case."
As of Monday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Susan R. Bolton, who found Arpaio guilty, had yet to rule on Arpaio's and the Justice Department's request.