Sunday, August 27, 2017
The process of the Arpaio pardon and civil-rights enforcement under Trump
Josh Chafetz (Cornell) has a Twitter thread and WaPo op-ed arguing that the focus should be on the underlying racism, sadism, and abuse of power motivating the Arpaio pardon, not the fact that the pardon was for a criminal contempt conviction. In other words, the problem is that Trump pardoned a racist, sadistic serial abuser of state power, not that he pardoned someone who had been held in contempt. Josh suggests that we might want a President to pardon someone convicted of contempt, at least in some circumstances.
His example is the facts underlying United States v. Cox (5th Cir. 1965). Two African-American men testified in a federal suit against a state official, saying the official had refused to register them as voters; when he denied discriminating, the federal judge presiding over the case recommended that the two men be charged with perjury. DOJ investigated, but found no grounds for a perjury charge. Nevertheless, the judge ordered the case submitted to a federal grand jury, which convicted. When the US Attorney (acting on orders of Acting AG Nicholas Katzenbach) refused to pursue the indictment, the judge held the US Attorney in contempt and ordered Katzenbach to show cause why he should not be held in contempt. On direct review, the 5th Circuit reversed the contempt order, but refused to grant a writ of prohibition to Katzenbach, who had not yet been placed in any risk of contempt.Procedure does matter, because of the circuitousness of that hypothetical pardon. The orders in Cox were for civil contempt, so a pardon would not have made a difference. To get to criminal contempt for a racist federal judge requires so many additional steps, including the cooperation of the US Attorney and Department of Justice. So you would need not only a racist judge, but a racist DOJ, with all its layers of review, that a subsequent President would choose to rebuke through a pardon. That all seems unlikely.
A second procedural issue involves civil contempt. To the extent this pardon sends a signal about civil rights enforcement, the effect may be federal judges relying more on civil contempt, including fines and jail for recalcitrant prison officials. Arpaio and Maricopa County had been held in civil contempt, but the judge chose not to enforce the citation against Arpaio (wisely, given the risk that it would have turned him into a martyr). Criminal contempt became necessary when nothing else worked and when Arpaio was voted out of office. But how plaintiffs frame cases affects available approaches to contempt going forward. Big structural-reform cases are brought against the entity, but courts are reluctant to impose sanctions such as fines or jail against non-parties, except as an extreme last resort. So expect civil-rights plaintiffs to spread the scope of their complaints to top officials in addition to the entity.