WASHINGTON ― Attorney General William Barr ordered federal prosecutors to “be on the lookout” for coronavirus-related measures from states and localities that could infringe upon Americans’ constitutional rights and civil liberties.
In a memo to the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division as well as all 93 U.S. attorneys across the country, Barr indicated that the Trump administration may take legal action against state and local governments that impose excessive restrictions on citizens because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If a state or local ordinance crosses the line from an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID-19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional and statutory protections, the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court,” Barr wrote.
“Many policies that would be unthinkable in regular time have become commonplace in recent weeks, and we do not want to unduly interfere with the important efforts of state and local officials to protect the public,” Barr wrote. “But the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis. We must therefore be vigilant to ensure its protections are preserved, at the same time the public is protected.”
Barr said last week that the Trump administration may side with private litigants who challenge the constitutionality of the enactment of certain coronavirus-related restrictions. The DOJ previously sided with a church that was banned from holding a drive-in service in which congregants stayed in their cars with their windows up and listened to a preacher over the radio.
President Donald Trump, who nominated Barr in December 2018, lent support to activists who sought to rally members of the public against states’ measures to restrict activity due to the coronavirus pandemic. “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” Trump tweeted earlier this month, targeting states led by Democratic governors.
Barr placed Civil Rights Division chief Eric Dreiband as well as U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, the top federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Michigan, in charge of overseeing efforts to “monitor state and local policies and, if necessary, take action to correct them.” Schneider’s selection raises the possibility that the feds will look at restrictions imposed by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), whose strict stay-at-home orders have faced protests.
Read Barr’s memo below.
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