Poll: Should a Sheriff be Above the Law?

This poster, showing Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona well illustrates the matter of what to do when law enforcement engages in civil disobedience. Should they be treated as any other citizen? Or should there be a higher standard? Image credit: Arizona New Times





By C J Oakes

America’s Toughest Sheriff has been arrested.

The self-styled “toughest sheriff” Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona is facing Criminal Contempt charges. The charges stem from an Act by the Arizona Legislature (SB 1070). This bill was ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 2012. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Sheriff Arpaio ignored the ruling. He has continued to enforce the Arizona law.

SB 1070 – The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act – Controversial from the Start

Arizona Senate Bill 1070 has been controversial since it was passed in 2010. Even before passage, critics and lobby groups claimed the law legalized racial profiling. At issue is not that something should be done to stem the tide of illegal aliens from entering Arizona. Instead, the issue is whether passage of such an act would open the door for official racial profiling in enforcement. Critics say this would allow racial profiling on U.S. citizens as well.

English: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, s...
English: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, standing in the blue suit behind Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, at a press conference in front of Chase Field a.k.a. Diamondback Stadium. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sheriff Arpaio remains at the center of the debates. He has thrown himself into the national spotlight as an enforcer who needs stronger tools. His supporters agreed. Governor Jan Brewer signed the bill into law. At the time of passage, the majority of America agreed with the measure.

One notable critic, however, was President Obama. He stated that SB 1070 would,

“undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.”

Arizona v. United States Docket 11-182

The Department of Justice agreed as well. The DOJ brought a lawsuit against the state of Arizona. The Supreme Court agreed too, by a margin of 5-3.

In the interim, there were protests and boycotts. The ACLU weighed in against Arizona as did similar organizations. Five other states introduced similar legislation. These were,

  • Michigan
  • Rhode Island
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Minnesota

Ironically, the other states sharing a border with Mexico disagreed with the path Arizona was taking. These did not pass such legislation, though they all share the same difficulties. These were New Mexico, Texas, and California.

Arizona v. United States and the Question of Civil Disobedience

This brings us to the heart of our latest poll. Civil disobedience is really the issue. Henry David Thoreau was the first to suggest the term civil disobedience. In a treatise dated 1849, Thoreau argued that it is both the right and duty of a citizen to disobey a law which is not morally just. Since then, citizens have applied civil disobedience to many issues. The most notable were the struggles for Civil Rights, Womens Rights, Gay Rights, and Voting Rights.

When Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, she was exercising civil disobedience. Her actions led to the Montgomery Boycott. This led to national attention for the civil rights movement.




When activists for GreenPeace chain themselves to trees, they are engaging in civil disobediance. In fact, civil disobediance is a form of peaceful protest. It forces the hand of government to show its cards. In the case of something which is clearly wrong, it can sway public opinion for the cause.

Should Sheriff Arpaio be Arrested for Refusing the Orders of the Supreme Court?

One of the most recent examples of civil disobedience occurred when a Rowan County Clerk named Kim Davis refused to issue a marriage license to a gay couple. This took place after the Supreme Court ruled gay marriage legal in the United States. So the clerk exercised her right to civil disobedience. She refused to issue the permit, was jailed, and dismissed from her job. Was this right or wrong? It was civil disobedience.

English: Father Daniel Berrigan is arrested fo...
English: Father Daniel Berrigan is arrested for civil disobedience outside the U.S. Mission to the U.N. in 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Returning to the example of Rosa Parks. She was arrested and jailed for refusing to comply with the law. That is the law. That is also the price of civil disobedience. In fact, as late as 2006, activists were still trying to get Rosa Parks exonerated of the charges. In other words, she had a criminal record her entire life because she chose to fight the law.

Davis too paid a price for her stand. That is why civil disobedience is not exercised by everyone. Some people fear a police record. Some do not, if they consider the cause just. But the situation with Sheriff Arpaio is rather different.

Should Law Enforcement be Permitted to Exercise Civil Disobedience?

The case of Sheriff Arpaio raises issues at the heart of civil disobedience. Although it is fairly common for regular citizens to break the law in order to fight the law, it is not so for those entrusted with law enforcement. Too, the usual goal in civil disobedience is to force a law to the Supreme Court. This permits a Constitutional ruling for all America.

In this matter involving Sheriff Arpaio, the case has already been ruled upon by the Supreme Court. The Sheriff is defying that Court’s ruling. In addition, an oath to uphold the laws of the County, State, and Nation is taken by all law enforcement officials. Thus, Sheriff Arpaio is even violating a sacred oath he took on accepting the office. Following is the oath sworn by every employee of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office:

“As an employee of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, I pledge to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America and the Constitution of the State of Arizona, to obey the laws of the State and the United States, and the rules, regulations, and Policies of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. I will never abuse the authority vested in me, and will honor and uphold the constitutional rights to liberty, equality, and justice afforded to all persons. I will be honest in thought and deed, in both my personal and official life, and will not allow my conduct to bring discredit, dishonor, or shame upon the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. I will never misrepresent myself, be untruthful, or take what does not belong to me, nor will I tolerate conduct on the part of any other employee of the Office, which violates the principles of this Code of Ethics.”

Consider this oath for a moment.

For starters, such an oath holds law enforcement officials to a higher standard than the rest of the public. Although the public should obey the law, the average citizen never swears an oath to do so. Thus, it is one thing for an average citizen to protest a law through civil disobedience. But how could anyone in law enforcement do so without violating their own oath? They could not.

Maricopa County Sheriff's Deputies standing proud. Should law enforcement be held to the same, higher, or lower standard than the average citizen? Image source: Maricopa County Law Enforcement handbook.
Maricopa County Sheriff’s Deputies standing proud. Should law enforcement be held to the same, higher, or lower standard than the average citizen? Image source: Maricopa County Law Enforcement handbook.

Nowhere does it state that an employee (including the Sheriff) must adhere to Supreme Court rulings.

What it does state, however, is that each must adhere to the “laws of the United States.”

Much has been made in recent decades about the Supreme Court becoming a law-making body through rulings. Many decry the Court as engaging in judicial activism. Such activism is a violation of the essence and purpose of that body. The case of Sheriff Arpaio certainly raises these issues, but who could possibly hear this case?

Who will Sheriff Arpaio appeal to? The U.S. Supreme Court? If the Court even considered his case, surely they would rule against him. A ruling in his favor would overturn their own decision.

Here are the facts:

  1. Arizona Senate Bill 1070 was declared Unconstitutional by the Highest Court in the land.
  2. Maricopa County Sheriff Arpaio violated the laws of the United States by refusing to comply with that ruling.
  3. Sheriff Arpaio swore an oath to uphold the laws of his county, the state, and the nation.
  4. Sheriff Arpaio clearly believes the Supreme Court wrong in its ruling.
  5. Sheriff Arpaio has demonstrated his belief through civil disobedience.
  6. Most civil disobedience centers on getting a bad law before the Supreme Court, but this instance questions the ruling of that body.
  7. Acts of civil disobedience nearly always lead to an arrest and criminal record.
  8. This act of civil disobedience poses a situation never seen in the United States previously.

So. Here is the Poll; There are Three Parts

Although civil disobedience is a right of all citizens, should a law enforcement official be permitted to exercise this right, despite swearing a solemn oath to uphold the law?

Should Law Enforcement Officials be held to a higher, lower, or the same standard as average citizens in cases of civil disobedience?

Since this case involves a dispute between a citizen and the Supreme Court, who could legally hear the case?

Let us know your thoughts.

This poster, showing Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona well illustrates the matter of what to do when law enforcement engages in civil disobedience. Should they be treated as any other citizen? Or should there be a higher standard? Image credit: Arizona New Times
This poster, showing Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona well illustrates the matter of what to do when law enforcement engages in civil disobedience. Should they be treated as any other citizen? Or should there be a higher standard? Image credit: Arizona New Times

This matter of Sheriff Arpaio versus the United States Supreme Court has the potential to shape law in America.

Whether the laws that are sure to come from this are positive or harmful to the nation is yet to be seen.

To be certain, this is an issue we all should consider.

So please, leave a comment and share this with friends using any of the social media buttons below.



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