Attorney General William Barr is asking federal prosecutors to be “on the lookout” for COVID-19 directives that may violate Americans’ constitutional rights.
“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,” wrote Barr, directing DOJ prosecutors Eric Dreiband and Matthew Schneider to coordinate the effort.
Policies that were “unthinkable” one year ago have become “commonplace,” notes Barr. “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.”
Barr’s concern is valid given government’s historic predisposition to take advantage of crises for their own benefit.
“In times of emergency…the temptation to violate individual rights is at its greatest, and the courts have often been called on to defend the vulnerable,” notes Harvard Law professor Glenn Cohen.
Earlier this month, a federal judge in Kansas stymied an effort by Governor Laura Kelly (D) to block religious gatherings of more than 10 people. In Mississippi, local officials attempted to block Holy Week services from being broadcast via radio to congregants sitting in their cars.
“The idea that you have to stay in your house is disturbingly close to house arrest,” adds Barr. “I’m not saying that it wasn’t justified. I’m not saying in some places it might still be justified. But it’s very onerous, as is shutting down your livelihood.”
Author’s Note: Speaking of law-breaking COVID-19 restrictions, my gym initially told members it would require them to pay dues even while the facility is closed, before backtracking in fear of lawsuits.