Joe Arpaio, the former Sheriff of Maricopa County, AZ, was found guilty of criminal contempt of court by U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton on July 31, 2017. Apparently Arpaio requested a trial by jury, but this was denied.

On what legal basis was Arpaio denied a trial by jury?

I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me that the 6th amendment to the U.S. constitution guarantees the right to a trial by jury in criminal matters. Why does that not apply here? I would be curious to know what the full legal story is here, as I can't tell from the media reports.

2 Answers 2


Some of the documents are here. As document 61 of the trial, the government motion for bench trial, argues,

There is no constitutional right to a jury trial for criminal contempt charges resulting in a sentence of imprisonment of six months or less.

Arpaio responds in document 62 that

Defendant Arpaio acknowledges that there is no constitutional right to a jury trial for defendants charged with “petty” offenses where the maximum sentence does not exceed six months imprisonment,

but continues the argument (the point being that there is no question that there is no absolute right to a jury trial, esp. in the instant case). He argues

Many of the actions of the referring judge will become an issue in the case, calling into question the objectives and motives of Judge Snow. A public official’s actions and motives should and must be decided by an impartial jury of the elected official’s peers.

The court order is document 83. There,

The Court finds that this case is appropriate for a bench trial. This case focuses on the application of facts to the law to determine if Defendant intentionally violated a court order.

Essentially, since there is no right to a jury trial and no compelling reason to grant a jury trial (e.g. the court found no merit to his argument that there would be the appearance of impropriety), the motion for a bench trial was granted.

The order cites case law regarding the "not longer that 6 months" rule from Muniz v. Hoffman, 422 U.S. 454; United States v. Rylander, 714 F.2d 996; Taylor v. Hayes, 418 U.S. 488; United States v. Aldridge, 995 F.2d 233; United States v. Berry, 232 F.3d 897.

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    Thank you for the thorough answer; it took me some time to read the references. I am shocked that supreme court precedent cuts such a large hole in the 6th amendment.
    – Thomas
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 3:52
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    @Thomas The logic's reflected in "How to handle Traffic Court ignoring basic rights" on SE.Law. The gist seems to be that the legal system's too burdened/costly to handle every little matter formally, such that more minor ("petty") offenses are treated with less rigor. Traffic court's a more extreme example, and minor criminal offenses are an even more extreme example (since police officers can decline to arrest someone even when they have proof of a crime, serving as de facto judges).
    – Nat
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 20:10
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    Thanks, @Nat I understand the logic. What I find shocking is that (i) 6 months imprisonment is considered "petty" and (ii) this was done without amending the constitution.
    – Thomas
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 20:23
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    I also find it surprising that this exception applies to contempt charges, where the court is thus simultaneously judge, jury, and accuser. That doesn't sound like due process to me.
    – Thomas
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 20:35
  • There is due process. The problem is that here, the due process consists of the judge deciding whether it's a good idea to impose punishment.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Mar 24, 2020 at 15:07

According to Baldwin v. New York (1970), "the federal right to jury trial attaches where an offense is punishable by as much as six months' imprisonment" (1). That, is a crime is considered petty unless the maximum punishment exceeds six months' imprisonment.

Moreover, Arpaio is being charged with criminal contempt. According to 42 U.S. Code § 1995, "the fine to be paid shall not exceed the sum of $1,000, nor shall imprisonment exceed the term of six months" (2). Therefore, Arpaio does not have the right to a trial by jury.


  1. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/399/66/
  2. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/1995
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    Interesting. I was not aware that such a minimum applies. However, 6 months imprisonment seems pretty serious to me.
    – Thomas
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 2:01
  • @Thomas: The ruling of the court is simply wrong.
    – Joshua
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 3:00
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    @Joshua In this case, it seems the court has correctly applied precedent. I disagree with that precedent, but it is what it is.
    – Thomas
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 3:33
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    @Thomas: Precedent will almost always either be redundant (since the same result could have been achieved without it), inapplicable (since the cited case is different from the extant case in some fashion), or illegitimate (since the earlier case was decided wrongly). The only times none of those situations will apply are when either (1) precedent is used to select among outcomes that would be equally justifiable in its absence, or (2) the harm caused by e.g. a decision that imposed an illegitimate burden on one business would be magnified by allowing competitors to act without such burden.
    – supercat
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 0:03
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    @Thomas: It's right and proper to cite precedent in cases where there would be genuine ambiguity in its absence, but there is no legitimate basis for treating precedent as having higher priority than aspects of Constitutional or statutory law that would otherwise be unambiguous.
    – supercat
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 0:05

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