Attorney General William Barr announced in a memo on Monday that he has directed the Department of Justice (DOJ) to start taking action against states and localities that are violating American’s civil liberties as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Millions of Americans across the nation have been ordered to stay in their homes, leaving only for essential and necessary reasons, while countless businesses and other gathering places have been ordered to close their doors indefinitely,” Barr began. “These kinds of restrictions have been necessary in order to stop the spread of a deadly disease—but there is no denying that they have imposed tremendous burdens on the daily lives of all Americans.”
Barr detailed how earlier in the pandemic he ordered the DOJ to crackdown on those who were trying to illicitly profit from the pandemic by hoarding supplies and then engaging in price gouging.
“Now, I am directing each of our United States Attorneys to also be on the lookout for state and local directives that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens,” Barr wrote. “As the Department of Justice explained recently in guidance to states and localities taking steps to battle the pandemic, even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers.”
“The legal restrictions on state and local authority are not limited to discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers,” Barr continued. “For example, the Constitution also forbids, in certain circumstances, discrimination against disfavored speech and undue interference with the national economy. If a state or local ordinance crosses the line from an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID19 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 that he had appointed Eric Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, and Matthew Schneider, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, to head up the effort to “monitor state and local policies and, if necessary, take action to correct them.”
“They should work not only with all Department of Justice offices and other federal agencies, but with state and local officials as well,” Barr concluded. “Many policies that would be unthinkable in regular times 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. 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 that the public is protected.”
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