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Thomas Gallatin / April 28, 2020

Barr Sets DOJ Upon States Infringing on Civil Rights

The AG believes Americans’ freedoms are unduly restricted by some state and local authorities.

Last week, Attorney General William Barr voiced his growing concerns that some state and local governments’ actions in response to the China Virus pandemic may be infringing on Americans’ constitutionally protected civil liberties. On Monday, Barr acted on those concerns, sending a two-page memo to 93 U.S. attorneys instructing them to “be on the lookout” for any state or local authorities who may have overstepped their authority in issuing COVID-19 restrictions. “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,” Barr wrote, “the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court.”

Barr specifically noted the infringement upon First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of religion: “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.” Barr added, “The Constitution also forbids, in certain circumstances, discrimination against disfavored speech and undue interference with the national economy.”

While Barr acknowledge that certain “restrictions have been necessary in order to stop the spread of a deadly disease,” he also noted “there is no denying that they have imposed tremendous burdens on the daily lives of all Americans.” And he cogently concluded, “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. We must therefore be vigilant to ensure its protections are preserved, at the same time that the public is protected.”

Barr tapped Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband and U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Matthew Schneider to lead the effort to “monitor state and local policies and, if necessary, take action to correct them.” This is a welcome and needed development as several state governors and local authorities have clearly exceeded their authority and have stepped all over their constituents’ constitutionally protected rights.

In fact, just yesterday, a judge in southern Illinois ruled that Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s particularly onerous stay-at-home order violated individual civil rights and exceeded the authority of his office. Predictably, the Democrat governor arrogantly asserted that the ruling was “dangerous and people’s safety and health have now been put at risk.” Pitzker also attacked Rep. Darren Bailey, a Republican who brought the lawsuit against the governor, claiming that Bailey was “blindly devoted to ideology and the pursuit of personal celebrity.” It’s telling that Pitzker’s authoritarian instincts allow him to so flippantly dismiss and smear concern over constitutional fidelity as merely a foolish expression of blind devotion. If it wasn’t for the Founders’ “blind devotion” to Liberty, there would be no Constitution, Bill of Rights, or United States.

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