U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Detroit led other Democrats on Wednesday in filing a legal brief in opposition to former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio’s request that a federal judge vacate his criminal contempt-of-court conviction.
President Donald Trump last month pardoned Arpaio three weeks after a court found him guilty of criminal contempt for defying a court order to cease detaining immigrants based on suspicions that they were illegally in the country. Arpaio had faced up to six months in prison.
Conyers was joined in Wednesday’s brief by more than two dozen Democratic members including Reps. Jerrold Nadler of New York, Zoe Lofgren of California and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, arguing that the pardon was not just “disgraceful” abut an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers.
The brief argues that an independent judiciary must be able to enforce compliance with its orders through the contempt power, especially when those orders aim to protect the constitutional rights of private parties.
“By pardoning Sheriff Arpaio, the president threatened this fundamental judicial power. Furthermore, if the President’s pardon is allowed to stand, this case could have severe implications for Congress’s ability to compel compliance with its own investigations and orders,” the members said in a joint statement.
“President Trump’s pardon was not intended to remedy an unduly harsh criminal punishment, or to correct a mistake in the enforcement of the criminal law — the intended purpose of the power — but to usurp the power of the judiciary to vindicate the authority of the courts and to uphold the rule of law.”
They argue that pardon power is not absolute, citing constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe who has said, “when the Constitution says that the president ‘shall have power,’ that does not mean unlimited power. It means power that is not inconsistent with other parts of the Constitution.”
“We agree with Professor Tribe and with numerous other scholars and commentators that the president’s pardon of Sheriff Arpaio was unconstitutional and, therefore, ask the court to deny Sheriff Arpaio’s motion to vacate his conviction,” the members said.
Conyers has previously asked the House Judiciary Committee to investigate the Arpaio pardon, saying the pardon disregarded the rule of law and circumvented the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice, breaking with presidential tradition.
Justice Department policy calls for an expression of remorse and a waiting period of five years or more before consideration of an application for pardon – which Arpaio never filed.