US Attorney General William Barr said in an interview on Tuesday that the Department of Justice (DOJ) might consider taking legal action against states that go too far in restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19.
When faced with “a potential catastrophe,” the government can deploy measures and put temporary, reasonable restrictions on rights if necessary. However, the government “has the obligation to adapt to the circumstances,” and it is still bound and constrained by individual Constitutional rights.
Barr stated that the US is moving into a period in which the government needs to adapt and better tailor measures against COVID-19 so that the government is not “unduly intruding on civil liberties” and that the measures adopted are “properly targeted.”
He noted that, to the extent that governors did not follow President Donald Trump’s guidance and did impinge on civil rights or the national commerce, it would have to be addressed. The measures adopted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were “very strong” and “unprecedented burdens on civil liberties.”
You know, the idea that you have to stay in your house is disturbingly close to house arrest. I’m not saying it wasn’t justified. I’m not saying in some places it might still be justified. But it’s very onerous, as is shutting down your livelihood. So these 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. And we are now seeing that these are bending the curve, and now we have to come up with more targeted approaches.
When individuals bring lawsuits for infringements of rights in connection with the COVID-19 efforts, the DOJ looks at the complaints and takes a position if the complaint is justified.
Barr also said that the DOJ is carefully scrutinizing the number of rules being enacted by the states. If it thinks that one “goes too far,” the DOJ first will try to persuade the governors to either roll them back or adjust them. If the governors do not, and people bring lawsuits, the DOJ files a statement of interest, siding with the plaintiffs.
For more on COVID-19, see our special coverage.