While acknowledging the importance of strategic shutdowns and social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, Attorney General William Barr said this week that the Justice Department will step in if state leaders take too firm a hand in preventing their citizens from exercising their rights. In an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday, Barr said that it’s important for governors around the country to recognize that there’s a fine line between wise stay-at-home orders and the obliteration of civil liberties.
“Blunter instruments that say everyone has to shelter in place, to stay at home regardless of the situation on the ground, or you know, you shut down a business regardless of the capacity of the business to operate safely for its customers and its employees, those are very blunt instruments,” he said.
“I also think that we have to give businesses more freedom to operate in a way that’s reasonably safe,” Barr continued. “I think the president’s guidance has been, as I say, superb and very commonsensical, and I think a lot of the governors are following that. And you know, to the extent that governors impinge on either civil rights or on the national commerce, our common market that we have here, then we’ll have to address that.”
Barr didn’t elaborate on what steps the Justice Department might take, and it’s not clear what options they would have at their disposal. States have enormous leeway to run their governments the way they see fit, and the DOJ would have no right to step in for concerns over commerce being interrupted. On the other hand, if interstate commerce is being threatened or if people really are seeing their constitutional rights taken away, there is a place for federal intervention. Of course, by the time that intervention actually makes its way through the courts, we will probably already be on the other side of this thing.
On a personal note, Barr noted that the economic shutdown was not meant to be seen as a permanent solution to the coronavirus outbreak.
“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,” he said. “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.”
As of this week, several states including Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee are going to begin a phased re-opening. How well those states fare over the coming weeks will likely determine when and if we’ll see similar re-openings around the country.
Hopefully, for the sake of our public health and the economy, we’re on our way back to normal…or at least as close to it as we can get under the circumstances.