Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio is known for housing inmates in tent cities in the desert and making them wear pink clothes as humiliation, but also for allegations of racial profiling and abusive treatment of Latinos, inside and outside of his jailhouse.
On September 2, 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office, challenging Arpaio’s refusal to demonstrate that his office is complying with federal civil rights laws. Specifically, the suit alleges that the Sheriff’s Office has violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race or ethnicity by institutions, like the Sheriff’s Office, that receive federal funds, and requires them to document their compliance.
The litigation is unprecedented in modern times, and recalls the bad old days of the segregated South, when the Justice Department had to sue such bullies and obstructionists as Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who literally blocked the schoolhouse door to African American students seeking to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School. (In a poignant coincidence, Jefferson Thomas, one of the Little Rock Nine, passed away the same week in an Ohio care facility).
At present the Arpaio situation is far less dramatic than the Little Rock case, in which President Eisenhower federalized Arkansas National Guard troops to enforce the Constitution and protect nine brave African American students from a violent mob. But, ultimately, the showdown in Maricopa County is about the same basic principles: Equal Justice and Accountability.
Maricopa County chose to receive federal funds to help support its programs and services. And like every other county, city, or state that receives those funds, it agreed to ensure equal justice and equal opportunity in its programs and activities, and to keep and provide records that it is doing so. The Sheriff’s Office must now abide by the law, and by the agreement it made, to show that it is accountable for those funds and to the Constitution of the United States.
Today’s dispute is about information and documentation. But those mundane mechanisms are part of an early warning system developed precisely to avoid the traumatic conflicts of the 1950s and ‘60s. If, among other allegations, Arpaio is violating the human rights of Maricopa’s Latino residents and others, then he and his office must be brought to justice. If he is not, then the documents sought by the Justice Department will help to vindicate him. Either way, he and his office must be accountable—for the use of public funds, to the Constitution and laws of our land, and to the American values of equal justice for all.