Across the U.S., governors have instituted stay-at-home orders in line with the federal government’s own guidelines meant to stem the spread of the Coronavirus, but protesters against the stay-at-home orders have turned out in droves anyway, and President Donald Trump has tweeted bombastic support for the frequently physically antagonistic demonstrators. Now, Attorney General Bill Barr has stepped in with his own support for the demonstrators. This week, he issued a memo to every U.S. attorney admonishing them to “be on the lookout” for supposedly potential violations of civil liberties amidst the stay-at-home orders. He singled out religious institutions and free speech as particular areas of concern.
‘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.’
That last statement makes for good right-wing base fodder, but no one has suggested that the Constitution is “suspended” because of the Coronavirus crisis.
Lindsay Wiley, who works as a law professor at American University, commented:
‘It’s extremely likely that the DOJ will play favorites. I think it’s accurate to assume that DOJ will not intervene in a neutral way, but will instead intervene on behalf of plaintiffs asserting rights the administration favors… They’re picking and choosing where to intervene as a matter of prosecutorial discretion. That’s political, but it’s also ideological, and that’s one of the reasons elections matter. It’s not entirely illegitimate in my opinion… It will be important to watch these filings to see whether they take a stronger stance against stay-at-home orders and other restrictions, perhaps under pressure from the president.’
In other words, the administration may tailor their mid-pandemic actions to the president’s personal political wishes. Besides singling out concern about the treatment of religious institutions and free speech, Barr’s memo this week noted potential “undue interference with the national economy” as an area of concern.
So far, the Justice Department’s tangible legal intervention in lockdown-related court cases has been tepid. They filed a “statement of interest” in a government case against a Mississippi church that had been facing legal action over drive-in-style church service plans. That case was eventually dropped, although the Justice Department had been vague in their filing, in which they admonished the judge to treat the case carefully.
As the U.S. works to pick up the pieces in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak, more legal action could be on the horizon. Just this week, heavily armed demonstrators against Michigan’s stay-at-home order, which runs until at least May 15, stormed that state’s capitol building. Tensions among those convinced that public health measures are some kind of conspiracy against their turbo-charged MAGA-style liberty or whatever are running high.
This Friday, Trump posted support on Twitter for the Michigan demonstrators, suggesting that Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer should seek to strike some kind of deal with them. It’s unclear what negotiating mechanism that Trump may have in mind to use in a situation involving mobs of angry, gun-toting, screamers storming a state capitol building.