AG Barr says DOJ could go after governors who continue overreaching lockdown orders

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Attorney General Bill Barr believes that governments can impose “temporary and reasonable restrictions” on citizens’ rights in an emergency but recent examples of overreach may lead to legal action.

Addressing governors who have over-used their authority to issue blanket orders with coronavirus restrictions, Barr noted that the Department of Justice could pursue legal action in some cases when they infringe on Constitutional rights.

(Image: CBS screenshot)

The attorney general contended that the rights of citizens “don’t go away in an emergency” during an interview on “The Hugh Hewitt Show”  on Tuesday, indicating that government overreach in imposing excessive rules for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic could be addressed by lawsuits from the Justice Department.

“So initially, when you’re faced with a potential catastrophe, the government can deploy measures and even put temporary and reasonable restrictions on rights if really necessary to meet the danger,” Barr said.

“But it still has the obligation to adapt to the circumstances. Whatever powers the government has, whether it be the president or the state governor, still is bounded by Constitutional rights of the individual. Our federal Constitutional rights don’t go away in an emergency. They constrain what the government can do,” he added.

Barr pointed out that in cases such as the current pandemic, the governments have to “make sure that whatever burdens it’s putting on our Constitutional liberties are strictly necessary to deal with the problem.”

“They have to be targeted. They have to use less intrusive means if they are equally effective in dealing with the problem. And that’s the situation we’re in today,” Barr said. “We’re moving into a period where we have to do a better job of targeting the measures we’re deploying to deal with this virus.”

Even as the Trump administration began expressing guidelines for states to open up again gradually, some governors and local authorities have imposed and pursued more stringent social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders, stoking tensions within their borders as residents have begun to fight back.

Pastors and churchgoers have been threatened and even arrested for violations of coronavirus regulations and, in Mississippi, law enforcement informed one pastor that his rights had been “suspended.”

Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan has told residents of her state they cannot visit their second homes, cannot go fishing, or buy certain household items such as wood and carpeting. Some Democratic governors have tried to close gun shops and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said recently that he did not even factor in civil liberties when he made decisions about his state’s social distancing policies.

Barr told Hewitt in his interview that “when a crisis hits, I think the government needs a little bit of latitude to adopt, you know, the means to deal with it.”

“But those can frequently be blunt instruments, and over time, I think the government has the burden of tailoring its measures to make sure they are not unduly intruding on civil liberties. And that’s the question that’s being presented today in our country, which is the extent to which government has to tailor its approach more to the circumstances on the ground and not do undo damage or broad deprivations of civil liberties,” he said.

While social distancing measures and directives for sanitary practices are acceptable, Barr noted, authoritarian restrictions were not and could be targeted by the DOJ.

“Blunter instruments that say everyone has to shelter in place, to stay at home regardless of the situation on the ground, or you know, you shut down a business regardless of the capacity of the business to operate safely for its customers and its employees, those are very blunt instruments,” he said.

Barr acknowledged the complaints being filed by citizens across the nation and said that “as lawsuits develop, as specific cases emerge in the states, we’ll take a look at them.”

“We’re looking carefully at a number of these rules that are being put into place,” Barr said. “And if we think one goes too far, we initially try to jawbone the governors into rolling them back or adjusting them. And if they’re not and people bring lawsuits, we file statement of interest and side with the plaintiffs.”

He also addressed the restrictions placed by the Trump administration, noting that they “are very, very burdensome impingements on liberty, and we adopted them, we have to remember, for the limited purpose of slowing down the spread, that is bending the curve.”

“We didn’t adopt them as the comprehensive way of dealing with this disease,” Barr said. “And we are now seeing that these are bending the curve, and now we have to come up with more targeted approaches.”


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