One of the many reasons Trump’s pardon of Arpaio was so appalling was the nature of Arpaio’s behavior during the years he was sheriff. Trump’s pardon essentially endorsed the abuse of power.
Every time a public official–cloaked in the authority of the state–engages in self-serving, corrupt or unlawful behaviors, government legitimacy suffers. The most central principle of the rule of law is that no one is above it; the rules apply equally to the governed and those who do the governing.
Of course, if we don’t know what government officials are doing, we can’t enforce the rules.
One of the reasons our Constitution explicitly protects freedom of the press is because the press acts as a “watchdog,” ferreting out official misconduct. When Trump attacks unflattering coverage as “Fake News,” when Arpaio criticizes the press for pointing out that his actions are racist, they are attempting to delegitimize a critical element of Constitutional accountability.
Mother Jones recently provided an excellent example of how the system is supposed to work. The magazine investigated and uncovered a Judge’s conflict of interest in the aftermath of an immigration raid that netted 400 undocumented workers. As the article notes, such workers are
usually charged with civil violations and then deported. But most of these defendants, shackled and dragging chains behind them, were charged with criminal fraud for using falsified work documents or Social Security numbers. About 270 people were sentenced to five months in federal prison, in a process that one witness described as a “judicial assembly line.”
Overseeing the process was Judge Linda R. Reade, the chief judge of the Northern District of Iowa… The incident sparked allegations of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct and led to congressional hearings. Erik Camayd-Freixas, an interpreter who had worked at the Waterloo proceedings, testified that most of the Spanish-speaking defendants had been pressured to plead guilty…
Yet amid the national attention, one fact didn’t make the news: Before and after the raid, Reade’s husband owned stock in two private prison companies, and he bought additional prison stock five days before the raid, according to Reade’s financial disclosure forms. Ethics experts say these investments were inappropriate and may have violated the Code of Conduct for United States Judges.
The subsequent discovery of emails and memos from Immigration and Customs Enforcement showed that in the months leading up to the raid, Judge Reade had repeatedly met with immigration officials and federal prosecutors. She had also attended a meeting with officials from the US Attorney’s Office where “parties discussed an overview of charging strategies,” according to ICE memoranda. In those meeting she learned that about 700 arrests were anticipated.
I’ve previously argued that prisons should never be privatized. Not only is incarceration an inherently governmental function, but the private prison industry lobbies (often successfully) for counterproductive public policies. Currently, CCA and Geo, the two largest prison companies, are actively resisting criminal justice reforms and the decriminalization of marijuana. The Mother Jones article points to a less-recognized danger–public officials succumbing to the temptation to “enhance” the value of their investments.
Today, dozens of people who were sentenced by Reade while her husband owned prison stock remain behind bars. According to the US Sentencing Commission, the Northern District of Iowa, where Reade sits, sends a significantly higher proportion of defendants to prison, and with longer sentences, than the national average.
Can we spell “appearance of impropriety”?