Attorney General William P. Barr Monday ordered U.S. attorneys to consider legal action against governors whose efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus infringe upon Americans’ civil rights.
In a two-page memo to all U. S. Attorneys, Mr. Barr directed federal prosecutors to “be on the lookout” for local and state directives that could infringe upon religious, free speech or economic rights under the Constitution.
“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,” Mr. Barr wrote in a memo to all 93 U.S. attorneys.
Mr. Barr also directed Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband and U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Matthew Schneider to oversee the department’s efforts to monitor state and local policies.
The two officials will work with state and local governments as well as other federal agencies, according to the memo.
“Many policies that would be unthinkable in regular times have become commonplace in recent weeks, and 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,” Mr. Barr wrote.
“We must therefore be vigilant to ensure its protections are preserved, at the same time that the public is protected,” he said.
Mr. Barr’s directive comes as governors begin the process to reopen after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered their economies. The path has been slow with some governors proposing reopening in stages, frustrating President Trump.
The president is anxious for the nation to get back to work as unemployment claims reach record levels and businesses struggle to stay afloat with Americans stuck inside under stay-at-home orders.
Mr. Trump said earlier this month that some governors have “gone too far” in their efforts to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. And his conservative supporters have protested in a number of states demanding their governors loosen restrictions.
“The idea that you have to stay in your house is disturbingly close to house arrest,” he said in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt. “I’m not saying it wasn’t justified. I’m not saying in some places it might [not] still be justified. But it’s very onerous, as is shutting down your livelihood.”