U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Monday released a memo to federal prosecutors which sought to balance public safety measures with the preservation of “constitutional rights and civil liberties” during the coronavirus pandemic. The memo instructs U.S. Attorneys to “be on the lookout” for orders by state and local governments which encroach upon the rights of citizens.
Barr said he is expanding the mandate on prosecutors previously directed to prioritize cases against persons accused of illegally profiting from PPE hoarding and price gouging to also encompass constitutional violations.
“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.
Per the memo:
“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 said he is authorizing the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Matthew Schneider to coordinate DOJ’s “efforts to monitor state and local policies and, if necessary, take action to correct them.”
Barr also provided an example of the conduct the DOJ should be ensuring does not take place.
“For example, the Constitution also forbids, in certain circumstances, discrimination against disfavored speech and undue interference with the national economy,” he wrote. “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’s memo echoes comments he made last week on conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt’s show, during which he stated his belief that coronavirus-related restrictions had gone too far.
“These are unprecedented burdens on civil liberties right now; the idea that you have to stay in your house is disturbingly close to house arrest,” Barr said. “I’m not saying it wasn’t justified; I’m not saying in some places it might be still justified — but it’s very onerous, as is shutting down your livelihood.”
Barr also analogized continuing current shutdown orders to a doctor who “keep[s] feeding the patient chemotherapy” during cancer treatments, suggesting that while the cancer might be killed, so, too, would the patient.
Barr’s directive was met with swift backlash from several legal experts and Trump administration critics.
“What a load of garbage this latest missive from the president’s chief propagandist is,” wrote former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics Walter Shaub.
Legal journalist and Brennan Center for Justice Fellow Andrew Cohen noted the hypocrisy in Barr’s latest order.
“The zeal of Barr’s DOJ to undermine state and local shelter orders is matched only by its zeal to ignore voter suppression, police brutality, and abortion rights,” he tweeted.
National security attorney Kel McClanahan similarly commented:
Attorney and former FBI special agent Asha Rangappa made no attempt to hide her dissatisfaction with the attorney general:
See below for Barr’s full memorandum.
[image via Sarah Silbiger_Getty Images]
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