WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr directed top Justice Department prosecutors to take legal action against state and local officials if their coronavirus restrictions go too far, saying “the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis.”
Barr appointed the head of the department’s civil rights division, Eric Dreiband, and U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider “to oversee and coordinate our efforts to monitor state and local policies” related to coronavirus and “take action to correct them” if necessary, according to a departmentwide directive issued on Monday.
He also directed every U.S. attorney to “be on the lookout for state and local directives that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.”
The move comes as federal, state and local officials are struggling with what measures remain necessary to stop the virus outbreak. It also comes as President Donald Trump is using his bully pulpit to push for reopening the American economy, which he and his aides view as key to his chances for reelection.
The new directive represents a potentially aggressive posture for the department that could result in lawsuits being brought against state and local officials. Barr has been talking for several weeks about needing to find a balance between restrictions for health purposes and constitutional rights.
Conservative groups and activists have been ramping up pressure for the Trump administration — and Barr in particular — to act against governors they see as taking a hard line, such as Democrat Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, where prosecutor Schneider is based.
Alleging “rampant abuses of constitutional rights and civil liberties,” a group led by former Attorney General Ed Meese wrote Barr last week urging him “to undertake immediate review of all the orders that have been issued by the states and local governments across the nation.”
Barr said the current national crisis has required extraordinary but necessary restrictions, such as stay-at-home orders and directives closing businesses. But he said the Constitution forbids discrimination even in times of crisis, such as rules against certain speech and religious institutions and 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 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 said in the directive.
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