January 21, 2019

Arpaio pardon is a travesty of justice

Since biblical times, reverence for the rule of law has fueled our community. When Moses was given the law on Mount Sinai and then presented it to our ancestors, a great tradition was born, one from which a profound adherence to justice has never wavered. President Donald J. Trump’s pardon of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio breaks from the basic tenets of democracy and the premise and promise of our nation’s history.

The president, of course, has the constitutional authority to issue such a pardon. But we argue that he cannot do so with moral impunity, and his actions must not be met with silence — again — on the part of Jewish communal institutions, which too frequently have chosen fiscal discretion over ethical valor.

This pardon, issued on the eve of a massive natural and human catastrophe, is but the latest in a series of assaults on civil liberties, civil rights and a free press. It is but another example of the president’s evident disregard for the rule of law and his willingness to reward political friends despite their history of attacks on our constitutional protections. Accordingly, when a symbol of racism is honored by this administration, which seems so intent on dividing rather than uniting our country, we raise our voices in protest, in the name of a Jewish community that is increasingly vocal in its criticism of this administration.

What Arpaio did was to engage in evil and anarchy. He used his position of authority as sheriff toward unconstitutional, racially discriminatory ends. The Phoenix New Times reported that, for the past two decades, many judges have criticized Arpaio’s practices as being “unconstitutional and abusive” and in violation of a range of antidiscrimination laws.   Arpaio’s racial preferences happened to disfavor Latinos who, irrespective of whether they were suspected of committing a crime, were detained in what Arpaio called “concentration camps.” Arpaio’s sinister conduct and the president’s sanctioning of that conduct erode the very foundation of our Constitution.

This travesty of justice and its implications for our democracy should send shivers up and down the spine of every American Jew. 

This is not a subtle point. The president of the United States blessed a sheriff’s refusal to accept that the Constitution required him to keep his racial prejudices and categorizations at bay and, further, blessed that sheriff’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of a court order. A sheriff endangered and harmed the very people he was entrusted to protect, and this year he was found guilty of contempt of court. And for this, Trump called Arpaio “a great American patriot” and rewarded him with a presidential pardon. Republicans and Democrats alike certainly can agree that a person in a position of authority who, as Arpaio has done, degrades and humiliates inmates, places inmates in subhuman conditions of extreme heat and extreme cold without adequate supplies of water and food, and is racially biased as he executes his job, is anything but a patriot. Alas, he is a criminal. And by pardoning such a criminal, the president has abused his power, thereby promoting division, bigotry and cronyism.

This travesty of justice and its implications for our democracy should send shivers up and down the spine of every American Jew. 

In addition, this pardon sets a dangerous precedent for other reasons. It could frustrate the investigations of the president and his administration that are now underway, if witnesses and persons of interest believe they need not cooperate because the president could absolve them of criminal culpability by pardoning them. It could keep the American people from knowing the extent of possible abuses of power and obstructions of justice. Although James Madison wrote that abuse of the authority to pardon would be grounds for impeachment, we fear the opposite — that this president could use it to preserve himself in office.

It must offend our core values as Americans and as Jews that this president has evidently bartered fundamental constitutional rights and protections for personal political gain.

The pardon Trump issued — late on a Friday afternoon as Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas — usurps a system that protects all of us. Left unprotested and unchecked, this pardon threatens to wash away our history, to undermine our democracy, to upend due process and to erode the rule of law.  And, as Jews, this disregard of the rule of law should bear special meaning.

The Hebrew prophets warned against the absolute rule and rapacity of kings. The people ignored them in the name of political convenience, and suffered the consequences. We refuse to ignore this travesty of a pardon, which is no less than an attack on justice itself.

JANICE KAMENIR-REZNIK is co-chair of Jews United for Democracy and Justice (JUDJ); and MEL LEVINE, a former congressman, and ZEV YAROSLAVSKY, a former Los Angeles County supervisor, are members of the executive committee of JUDJ, a grass-roots movement of citizens dedicated to the principles of Torah, justice and democracy.