Kristine Phillips, USA TODAY
Published 6:01 p.m. ET April 27, 2020 | Updated 6:23 p.m. ET April 27, 2020
Attorney General William Barr has ordered the release of vulnerable inmates from three federal prisons.
WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department will intervene if stay-at-home orders in response to the coronavirus pandemic become too restrictive, directing federal prosecutors “to be on the lookout” for state and local directives that could be violating constitutional rights.
“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 said in a memo issued Monday. “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.”
The memo comes as states begin to reopen their economies, despite warnings from health experts that easing restrictions could cause a resurgence of coronavirus outbreaks. In Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp has set in motion an aggressive plan to lift restrictions, businesses such as hair salons and gyms are allowed to reopen.
Thousands have also protested stay-at-home orders in multiple states, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. President Donald Trump has endorsed the protests, calling on supporters to “liberate” states that have seen large gatherings of protesters.
AG William Barr warns of federal action: Barr warns of Justice Department intervention if state lockdown orders go ‘too far’
In his memo, Barr said restrictions on religious liberty, discriminating against “disfavored speech” and “undue interference” with the economy violate federal laws.
A Harvard public health expert warns that easing stay-at-home restrictions to open economies back up could reignite the coronavirus outbreak because states do not have the infrastructure to track fresh infections or protect the most vulnerable. (April 27)
“We do not want to unduly interfere with the important efforts of state and local official to protect the public,” Barr said. “But the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis.”
Barr tapped Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, and Matthew Schneider, the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Michigan, which covers Detroit.
Governors under pressure: Anti-quarantine protests, Trump pressure put governors on political tightrope over coronavirus
Michigan, which has been hard-hit by the pandemic — with about 38,000 COVID-19 cases and 3,400 deaths as of Monday — has imposed some of the most stringent restrictions. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered residents to stay inside except for essential purposes and nonessential businesses to not require employees to work. The Democratic governor has drawn criticism from the president, who encouraged protesters calling for reopening the state.
Barr warned last week of Justice Department intervention, telling conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt that officials are reviewing stay-at-home restrictions.
“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,” Barr said.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson
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