IN A democracy that prizes rule of law, calls to lock up public figures are jarring and usually out of place. But what to do if it’s a public figure such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the crusading racial profiler of Maricopa County, Ariz., who has spent the past several years systematically flouting a federal judge’s orders while hiding behind a smokescreen of obfuscation, manipulation and impunity?
In May, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow found Mr. Arpaio in contempt of court for willfully defying orders that his deputies halt their blatantly unconstitutional practice of detaining, arresting and harassing Latinos in traffic stops and workplace raids based on suspicions they are undocumented. The policy amounts to a race- and appearance-based enforcement regime that targets citizens, valid visa-holders and unauthorized immigrants alike. Heaven help anyone with olive skin who makes the mistake of driving in or around Maricopa County — including Phoenix, the county seat — population more than 4 million.
Confounded by the sheriff’s long-standing contempt for his lawful orders, Judge Snow last week threw up his hands. He referred Mr. Arpaio, who boasts he is “America’s toughest sheriff,” along with his top deputy, to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for criminal prosecution.
The judge, who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, may have been within his rights to take action earlier. Mr. Arpaio has been subject to the court’s orders since 2013, when he lost a class action suit alleging that the sheriff’s office methodically targeted Hispanics in enforcement sweeps, on the assumption that they were undocumented — even if they had committed no crime warranting a stop. The sheriff and his second in command, Jerry Sheridan, “have a history of obfuscation and subversion of this court’s orders that is as old as this case,” the judge wrote in his order.
Lionized by immigrant-bashing right-wingers and courted by Republican grandees such as Donald Trump and Mitt Romney, Mr. Arpaio has made the mistake of believing that his own celebrity bestowed immunity from compliance with judicial orders. He has destroyed records, refused to cooperate or allow his deputies to cooperate with a Justice Department investigation, and allowed subordinates to conceal the existence of nearly 1,500 IDs confiscated in sweeps.
Last month, the sheriff basked in applause at the GOP convention in Cleveland, which granted him a speaking slot in which to bray about Mr. Trump’s virtues as the scourge of illegal immigrants. Now the sheriff has been stripped by the court of key powers, including authority over his own office’s internal investigations; he faces criminal prosecution and the risk of prison time.
Mr. Arpaio, who is 84, is on the ballot this November, seeking reelection to a seventh term. He has cost the taxpayers of Maricopa County more than $40 million in legal fees in the current case, to say nothing of tens of millions more in litigation and settlements arising from lawsuits alleging an array of other misconduct by his office. The sheriff is a disgrace. If he’s not turned out of office by voters, a jury of his peers may deal with the problem, at last.
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