Enlarge /. Attorney General William Barr speaks while U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a Coronavirus Task Force press conference on Monday, March 23, 2020.
The Trump administration threatens to sue states and communities whose pandemic orders violate human rights or cause "inappropriate interference in the economy".
"I instruct each of our lawyers in the United States to also look out for state and local policies that could violate the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens," said Attorney General William Barr yesterday in a memo to all 94 American law firms. The Barr Memo states: "Even in emergencies where rights are reasonably and temporarily restricted, the first change and federal law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers." The memo is available on the Washington Post website.
Barr's memo is not just about protecting members of religious groups. He continued:
The legal restrictions for state and local authorities are not limited to the discrimination of religious institutions and religious believers. For example, in certain circumstances, the constitution also prohibits discrimination against unfavorable language and inappropriate interference with the national economy. If a state or local ordinance crosses the line between an appropriate exercise of powers to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and a serious violation of constitutional and legal protection, the Department of Justice may be required to remedy the overshoot before a federal court.
Barr wrote that he "therefore instructs the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Eric Dreiband, and Matthew Schneider, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, to monitor and coordinate our efforts to monitor state and local policies and, if necessary Take action to correct them. "While Barr said that US officials" do not want to unduly interfere with the important efforts of state and local officials to protect the public, "he noted that" the constitution will not be lifted in times of crisis. " ".
"Disturbingly close to house arrest"
The memo did not detail what kind of restrictions would cause the United States to sue states or cities, and did not specify whether the United States would contest existing measures. But Barr wrote that local restrictions, though "necessary to stop the spread of a fatal disease," have "put enormous strain on the daily lives of all Americans."
Barr previously criticized local policies in interviews, saying that "the idea of you staying in your home is alarmingly close to house arrest," a Fox News article said last week. "We are carefully reviewing a number of these rules that will be introduced," said Barr. "And if we think one is going too far, we first try to get the governors to roll them back or adjust them. And if it doesn't and people file lawsuits, we [a] file a declaration of interest and take the side of the plaintiffs. ""
The Department of Justice has so far "intervened in only one coronavirus restriction lawsuit and appears to support a church in Greenville, Mississippi, which has been sued for the city's efforts to stop religious auto services," the Washington Post wrote. The Department of Justice "has not clearly supported Temple Baptist Church in its legal expression of interest, although the circumstances described by the church" indicate that the city has selected churches for special treatment, "which would be unconstitutional."
Trump threatened states
President Trump claimed on April 13 that he had "total" authority to override governors and force states to reopen their economies, even while the coronavirus pandemic continues. "If someone is the President of the United States, the authority is total, and it has to be. It is total, and the governors know that," Trump said at a press conference.
This is not how it works because states and local governments have police powers to protect residents' health and safety through measures such as isolation and quarantine. But Trump's claim and related developments showed that at least some states are unlikely to be under federal pressure to reopen their economies. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York said he would not follow a possible order from the president to lift pandemic orders. Shortly before Trump's allegation, coalitions of governors on the east and west coast announced pacts to follow science rather than politics in their decisions to reopen economies.
Trump resigned just a day later and said, "I'm not going to pressure a governor to open up." However, Barr's letter signals that the Trump administration is not done putting pressure on states to lift pandemic orders.
Update at 10:20 p.m. ET: New York Attorney General Letitia James made a statement that she was ready to take legal action to defend the state's authority. "Despite the Trump administration's failure to do so, states can protect constitutional rights and issue guidelines to curb the spread of the corona virus at the same time," said James. "The tenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution is clear that" the powers that have not been delegated to the "federal government" are reserved for the states ". Make no mistake: United States Attorney General Barr is not the only one willing to take legal action to uphold the constitution. My office will struggle every day to defend it and the rights it grants to the great state of New York. "