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Smart v. Stupid

Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s showdown at the civil rights corral

Maricopa County lawman heads to trial himself

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio went on trial Thursday in federal court, charged with violating the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and Title VI, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. With the entire nation focused on whether Mitt Romney is a tax cheat, Barack Obama is a socialist, and George Zimmerman’s IQ is below 80, you may have missed the news.

Arpaio is accused of a longstanding pattern of civil rights violations both in Maricopa County and in the county jail. The lawsuit is the kind of particularly egregious civil rights case not seen since the 1960s in places like Alabama, Mississippi or Georgia. In this way, Arpaio is the Sheriff Willis McCall of the modern era.

Joe Arpaio is no stranger to lawsuits from people who allege he has abused them or violated their civil rights. In fact, sheriff’s office suits and settlements have cost Maricopa County some $50 million in legal dunning since Arpaio arrived. $28 million came from suits and countersuits between Arpaio and other county officials. A local paper found that this sheriff’s office is sued about six times as much as a comparable one. Another newspaper’s reporters—the Phoenix New Times—were the victim of his civil rights abuses.

But this lawsuit is different for lots of reasons. This is a federal lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice for a pattern of civil rights violations. It includes a 22-page statement of findings outlining page after page of civil rights abuses the Justice Department alleges were official practices in Arpaio’s department. The case will "determine whether Arpaio and his deputies engaged in racial profiling and discriminatory policing," the LA Times noted in a scathing editorial. And in this case, the plaintiffs aren’t asking for money – they simply want the alleged civil rights to stop.

“At its core, this is an abuse of power case involving Sheriff Arpaio and a sheriff’s office that disregarded the Constitution, ignored sound police practices, and did not hesitate to retaliate against perceived critics in a variety of unlawful ways,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “Constitutional policing and effective policing go hand in hand. The complaint outlines how Sheriff Arpaio’s actions were neither constitutional nor effective.”

If the claims are upheld, Judge Murray Snow can award the DOJ management oversight of the department or appoint a receiver to institute reforms. The filing largely leaves it to the judge to prescribe specific remedies. Still, this lawsuit has real teeth.

Arpaio has been a self-promoting lightning rod in Arizona politics since coming to office in the early 1990s. Crazy Joe calls himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff” and prides himself on terrorizing Phoenix-area Hispanics and jail prisoners. The latter he makes wear pink underwear, which makes him popular with the kind of redneck who favors prison as a form of torture. But it’s mostly all for show. Like almost all other men, the fellows in the Maricopa County Jail don’t really spend much time thinking about the color of their chonies.

To me, Arpaio seems like a guy of only modest intelligence (George Zimmerman again comes to mind) who defaults to being a professional “prick” because the language requirements for that job are small. He understands the work. “America’s Biggest Ass,” is probably a better description, more of a blowhard like Bull Connor than an intelligent bigot like, say, George Wallace.

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But modest intellect notwithstanding, Arpaio has still been able to do a lot of damage, both to Arizona’s Mexican descendants and to Arizona politics. In fact, some believe that Arizona’s SB 1070 was a direct payoff to Arpaio, brokered by deposed state-senator Russell Pearce—a former Arpaio deputy. If the suspicion is true, SB 1070 was brought to Gov. Jan Brewer as a way to give Arpaio cover from lawsuits. In exchange (the theory goes) he agreed not to challenge her in her primary race.

So now America gets its day in court in the Joe Arpaio matter. It’s been a long time coming. And for Arizona’s many citizens who aren’t racists, justice can’t come soon enough.

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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Sheriff Arpaio addressing the Tea Party Patriots American Policy Summit in Phoenix last year.

“The complaint outlines how Sheriff Arpaio’s actions were neither constitutional nor effective.”

— Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, Department of Justice