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Arizona's 'Sheriff Joe,' Immigration Firebrand, Squares Off With Feds

4 years ago
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The Justice Department upped its political and legal pressure on Arizona and its most notable lawman Thursday when it sued Maricopa County and Sheriff Joe Arpaio for allegedly failing to adequately cooperate with a civil rights investigation that predates the state's controversial anti-immigration measures. Although the lawsuit -- filed in federal court in Phoenix -- is not directly connected to the more recent immigration controversy surrounding the passage of S.B. 1070, Arpaio has been an outspoken critic of federal immigration policy and a vocal supporter of the state's new enforcement measures.

In fact, there is little that Arpaio is not vocal about -- even on Twitter (E.g. "What a great crowd at the Republican HQ. They all sang a very nice Happy Birthday to my beautiful wife.") Arpaio often is applauded locally, and is well-known nationally for what he calls his "get tough policies," which include dying prisoners' clothes pink, feeding them at a cost of 15 cents a meal, and housing them in tent cities. His midnight raids on businesses, where he rounds up suspected illegal immigrants, have been scorned by his critics and applauded by his fans. "No wonder Sheriff Arpaio has been profiled in over 2,000 U.S. and foreign newspapers, magazines, and TV news programs," coos the Maricopa County Web site. Critics of the sheriff -- also found all over the nation -- contend his tactics often erase the line between aggressive law enforcement action and unlawful harassment and discrimination.

Federal lawyers claim that Arpaio has failed for nearly a year and a half to turn over documents requested by the DOJ's Civil Rights Division. Under the auspices of the Civil Rights Act and several other federal statutes, the Justice Department is investigating the policies and practices of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (run by Arpaio) following allegations of discrimination against Hispanics. The DOJ Thursday made it clear: The continuing refusal by local officials to turn over documents in a timely fashion not only is a breach of a contract local officials made with the feds, but it "makes [Maricopa County] an extreme outlier . . . the Department is unaware of any other police department or sheriff's office that has refused to cooperate in the last 30 years."

Arpaio and his lawyers have claimed the repeated requests by federal lawyers are politically motivated and "simply unreasonable." They allege the Justice Department already has "many of the items" requested of Maricopa County and that federal law, which generally requires counties like Maricopa to provide the Justice Department with "access to documents, facilities and staff," does not require local officials to turn over to the DOJ "any document it wants, to access any facility it wishes, and to interview any witness it wants, without limitation . . ."

Scuffling with the feds will turn out badly for Sheriff Joe, as it ultimately did for Birmingham public safety commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor, and as it does for virtually any state or local lawman who flaunts federal law in this way. But the political ramifications go well beyond whether or not Maricopa County sheriffs' officials have violated the civil rights of Hispanic Americans through their Arpaio-infused law enforcement tactics. That's because Arpaio is not just a living, breathing embodiment of the doctrine of interposition -- local or state defiance to federal authority -- he's also a recognizable, and therefore valuable, face of the state's anti-immigration forces.

People know him and trust him. Arpaio has been elected to five four-year terms and remains very popular among his constituents. He was roundly hailed as an "innovator" for using "common sense" in his treatment of the prisoners. His unusual tactics, designed expressly to humiliate the incarcerated and at the same time lesson the burden they place upon taxpayers, conveniently (for Arpaio) coincided with hardening public attitudes about prisoners and their rights. It was a perfect meeting of man and moment, of a flamboyant, media-savvy "regular" guy and a new and popular cause. Arpaio is a grandfather. He's been married for over 50 years. He Tweets sweet nothings to his wife. Whether Hispanics in Maricopa County are being illegally discriminated against and harassed or not, which is what the feds are simply trying to find out, there has been no smoking gun, no national nightly news video of fire hoses upon vulnerable young bodies.

It will be the burden of federal lawyers, therefore, in the court of public opinion if not in federal court in Phoenix, to distinguish Arpaio's popular law enforcement policies -- and his celebrity -- with his views toward the federal investigation he appears to be stonewalling. It's not an impossible chore. It's one thing for a tough-on-crime sheriff to crow about serving convicted prisoners 15-cents-worth of food. Who, after all, really sticks up for those people? It's another thing for a tough-on-crime sheriff to take federal funding and then willfully disobey a federal document-production order from the nation's chief law enforcement officer -- the attorney general of the United States. The federal courts almost surely will side with the feds.

Indeed, the federal government's fight with Arpaio is one it neither wants nor can avoid. The last thing the White House and Justice Department need now -- as the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals considers the constitutionality of S.B. 1070 -- is more conflict with Arizona or any other states. It's just more political ammunition for the 10th Amendmentistas all over the country who will spin the federal demand for documents as yet another example of Washington's tyranny. You can see the election-year commericals now, can't you? "Why are the feds hounding Grandpa Joe? He's standing up for Arizona." Yada. Yada. Yada.

But nor can the White House and Justice Department countenance Arpaio's (and Arizona's, for that matter) disrespect and disobedience. The idea that the federal government would have to run to court to get law enforcement officials of a local sheriff's office to turn over documents is an alarming one. It means that none of the usual layers of state government between a local sheriff and the Justice Department -- from a state representative to a governor to a state attorney general to a member of the House of Representatives -- were able or willing to intercede on behalf of the feds and force Arpaio to comply with the request. And if the documents themselves establish actionable discrimination by Grandpa Joe against Hispanic Americans -- which surely is not beyond question -- it means a measure of complicity on the part of many of those cynical officials. Those are high stakes, indeed.

The federal courts exist to limit lawlessness no matter where it comes from. And it will be a lot more difficult for Sheriff Joe to preach his gospel with a federal court order requiring him at the same time to give the civil rights lawyers what they are looking for. As Gov. Jan Brewer has said over and over again, Arizona picked a fight with the feds over immigration to get the White House and the INS crackin' on illegal immigration. Arpaio has picked a similar fights over public records. When it comes to challenging the might of the federal government, say it ain't so, Joe; be careful what you wish for.

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