Professor Robert Tsai writes in Politico:
“When President Donald Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio, calling him a “patriot,” he didn’t just absolve him from the consequences of defying a federal judge. He didn’t merely excuse Arpaio’s racial profiling and illegal immigration sweeps. Trump’s pardon did do all of that. But it also did something more: It boosted a radical theory of law and American history that Arpaio supports, and which is gaining steam across the United States.
It’s called the “constitutional sheriff” movement, and as it grows, it’s increasing the risk of conflict between local law enforcement and federal authorities. Its animating idea is that a sheriff holds ultimate law-enforcement authority in his county—outranking even the federal government within its borders. Though the movement claims deep history in English law, its real roots lie in the more recent fringes of American right-wing thought. And its popularity helps explain why Arpaio’s defiance of federal law shouldn’t be seen as just one grandstanding sheriff crossing a line, but instead should be seen as part of a broader grassroots resistance to constitutional and cultural upheavals during the 20th century.
The strange idea that unites all members of this movement is that a sheriff is the highest law enforcement officer within a county’s borders—superior not only to local police, but also to officers and agents of the federal government. The actual influence of sheriff supremacy is hard to measure, but it has been growing in recent years, and today the official constitutional sheriffs’ association boasts 4,500 dues paying members and over 200 sheriffs. Its highest-profile members include Arpaio and David Clarke, who just resigned as sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, reportedly to help Trump in some capacity.
But those figures may underestimate how far its influence extends, and how fully it pervades certain regions of the country. In 2013, Arpaio joined nearly 500 other sheriffs who vowed not to obey any federal law that required them to confiscate guns from private citizens. In Utah, 28 of 30 sheriffs went even further, warning that “[n]o federal official will be permitted to descend upon our constituents and take from them what the Bill of Rights—in particular Amendment II—has given them.”
The constitutional sheriff movement arose from the ashes of the far-right, anti-semitic Posse Comitatus movement of the 1970s and 80s, led by William Potter Gale. The insignia favored by these Christian Patriots was a redesigned sheriff’s badge containing a noose, Bible and sword, to reflect their belief that sheriffs were responsible for the armed defense of citizens and higher law (a combination of their view of the Constitution and Christian Identity teachings). Before the movement collapsed with Gale’s death, its paramilitary figures developed an anti-tax, anti-government agenda that stoked conspiracy theories that Jews were responsible for oppressing farmers through crushing taxes and exorbitant loans. Its foot soldiers gained notoriety when they tried to stop foreclosures in the Midwest and engaged in shootouts with U.S. marshals.
. . . .
Trump’s pardon of Arpaio didn’t just let the sheriff off the hook; it short-circuited the part of the American judicial process designed to hold government accountable, and resolve conflicts between levels of government. It began when a class-action lawsuit was filed in 2007 by individuals who claimed they had been racially profiled during Arpaio’s immigration raids and traffic stops. In 2012, the DOJ intervened in the case to vindicate federal interests in ending discriminatory policing, to stop Arpaio from retaliating against his critics in violation of the First Amendment, and to ensure that non-English detainees didn’t forfeit their rights without understanding them. Arpaio lost the first case and settled with DOJ, but was held in civil contempt of court for continuing to capture migrants without legal authority and for failing to turn over records of these encounters.
During the legal proceedings, Arpaio made the puzzling assertion that he had never violated his oath of office, despite having ignored direct orders from a federal judge. As far as he was concerned, the oath of office gave him the right, indeed even the responsibility, to ignore the federal court. He was merely doing the rightful job of a sheriff, enforcing the laws and Constitution as he saw them, unaccountable to anyone but himself. Now that Arpaio has been pardoned, his place in the pantheon of constitutional sheriffs is secure. And his view of American law and history—one shared by kindred spirits, and one that menaces not just federal law but the Constitution itself—just got a troubling endorsement from the president of the United States.”
“Sheriff Joe” isn’t a great American as Trump falsely claims. To use Trump’s own term, Sheriff Joe is one “bad hombre” out to destroy America. And, Trump is the biggest threat to the U.S. Constitution in my lifetime. He is a living violation of his oath of Office.