PHOENIX - The campaign manager for the Valley's longtime sheriff on Thursday questioned a federal judge's timing in asking prosecutors to pursue criminal contempt-of-court charges against the lawman 10 days before a primary election.
The rare move in a long-running racial profiling case alleging Sheriff Joe Arpaio targeted Latinos in traffic stops comes as he faces his toughest race in 23 years in office. It's unclear whether the ruling will hurt the popular 84-year-old's chances in the Republican primary Tuesday.
FULL COVERAGE: Contempt of court case against Sheriff Joe Arpaio
Arpaio is a national figure known for cracking down on illegal immigration and forcing inmates to wear pink underwear and live in tents outdoors in the summer heat. He gave a speech at the Republican National Convention and has raised $10 million this cycle, much of it from out-of-state sources.
U.S. District Judge Murray Snow sent the case to criminal court last week after concluding months ago that Arpaio intentionally ignored his orders to stop patrols targeting immigrants. A retired judge defended the decision, saying politics isn't a consideration, only getting out rulings as soon as possible.
Campaign manager Chad Willems said he finds the timing of the ruling to be odd but wasn't suggesting Snow was trying to harm Arpaio's bid for a seventh term.
"I am not impugning his motives or questioning his integrity. It just seems whenever a major decision comes out, the timing is curious," Willems said, citing a 2013 decision in which Snow found Arpaio's officers racially profiled Latinos.
That came days before Arpaio critics faced a key deadline in an effort to recall him from office, which failed.
The sheriff's leading GOP primary challenger, former Buckeye Police Chief Dan Saban, said the ruling will help sway undecided voters to cast a ballot against Arpaio.
"It's a gift at this point, but it wasn't something that we should count on," Saban said.
The other two Republican candidates, retired sheriff's Deputy Wayne Baker and Marsha Hill, former commander of a sheriff's volunteer group, said voters who staunchly support Arpaio will keep doing so.
"What I hear from people is that the feds are just out to get Joe," Baker said. "I hear that consistently on social media. I tell them, `You just don't know, you are ill-informed."'
It's rare to bring a contempt case against a public official, but it's been used to make a recalcitrant official comply with court orders, said Gabriel J. Chin, a law professor who teaches criminal procedure at the University of California, Davis.
Snow found Arpaio in civil contempt three months ago, and his ruling Friday moves the case into criminal court to be handled by another judge. Snow has not publicly explained why he turned it over to another judge.
Federal law says a judge is to be disqualified from a criminal contempt case if the defendant is accused of disrespecting or criticizing the court.
Mel McDonald, an attorney for Arpaio, said Snow couldn't decide the outcome of the criminal case because he was making some of the allegations against Arpaio.
"In a case like this that is so significant, I think the judge did this as a matter of judicial discretion, and I think it was a good idea," Chin said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office didn't have an estimate on when it will decide whether to charge Arpaio. If prosecutors decline, the judge who got the criminal case can appoint an attorney to push charges if she believes it's warranted.
Arpaio would face up to six months in jail if he's charged and convicted of misdemeanor criminal contempt, but he could stay in office. For felony contempt, federal law doesn't specify a sentencing range, so punishments are up to the judge. A felony conviction would bar him from holding office.
McDonald said Arpaio will not accept a plea bargain if he is charged criminally and instead will seek a jury trial.
"We would like the voters of Maricopa County to judge this," the attorney said.
Arpaio, through a spokesman, declined a request for an interview but has cited Snow's order in a fundraising email to supporters.
"I'm now asking again because without your help, I'm dead in the water," he wrote.
No rules govern the release of rulings that could affect elections, retired Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Fields said.
"You don't worry about the politics. You try to get the rulings out as best you can," he said.
Fields, who said he is no Arpaio fan, defended Snow as a conservative Republican judge with a strong ethical backbone. He said Arpaio has a habit of launching attacks against people who can't publicly respond.
"This is the standard Joe Arpaio trick," Fields said.