Editorial: Law, not the president, must take precedence

President Donald Trump’s pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio sent a clear message to America — several messages, actually. But the controversial pardon should not become a guide for other law officials who might want to play loose with the rules, or for judges and juries who might hear future cases similar to the one for which Arpaio was convicted.

“Judge Joe,” the longtime sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., gained notoriety for his “tough-on-crime” stances that many say disregarded basic civil rights. After 24 years in office, he was voted out in 2016. During his tenure he faced lawsuits and accusations for alleged physical abuse of detainees, misuse of funds and immigration law violations. Barack Obama’s administration filed various suits against Arpaio alleging unlawful discriminatory police conduct, or racial profiling. He was found guilty of the practice in 2013.

Most recently, Arpaio was convicted in July of criminal contempt for defying court orders that he and his deputies stop detaining people solely because of their appearance and detaining them until they could prove legal residency.

President Trump on Aug. 25 issued a pardon of the contempt conviction, calling Arpaio “an American patriot” who “kept Arizona safe.”

White House officials say Trump issued the pardon on his own, without consulting any legal aides.

He should have. The pardon throws Arpaio’s case into legal limbo. While he had been convicted he hadn’t been sentenced, and the appeals process, through which Arpaio claimed innocence, hadn’t been completed. A presidential pardon by definition carries the acknowledgement of guilt.

Trump’s obvious ignorance of — or disregard for — the law should alert judges who might hear similar cases in the future. Some people might see the pardon as a message that laws against profiling can be ignored, but one of our strongest legal tenets is that no one is above the law — even the president.

We trust that most if not all law enforcement officials will recognize the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution and its protections of everyone’s civil rights. We trust judges and juries will continue rendering decisions based on the facts and the law, without regard for any expectations or fears that the president might override their rulings with a pardon.

No one has been more vocal than Trump’s own supporters in asserting that ours is a nation of laws. Even they must recognize that in any conflict between the president and the law, the law must take precedence.

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