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DOJ proposes judges be able to detain people indefinitely and suspend court rules during coronavirus pandemic

People in a crowd wearing face masks. (Dreamstime/TNS)
March 24, 2020

The U.S. Department of Justice has asked Congress for a list of emergency powers, including bestowing power upon district judges to suspend all court rules and detain individuals indefinitely during emergencies, like the coronavirus pandemic, according to an exclusive report from Politico on Sunday.

The DOJ asked Congress to authorize the attorney general to ask the chief judge of any district court to pause court proceedings “whenever the district court is fully or partially closed by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation.”

Although unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, the request would grant judges the broad power to suspend civil rights that apply to “any statutes or rules of procedure otherwise affecting pre-arrest, post-arrest, pre-trial, trial, and post-trial procedures in criminal and juvenile proceedings and all civil process and proceedings,” according to legislation shared with Congress.

Individual judges can already pause proceedings during emergencies and the department’s request would ensure all judges in any particular district could handle emergencies “in a consistent manner,” according to the DOJ’s justification for the request.

Defendants affected by this would be able to be held in custody longer before a trial and statutes of limitations would be put on hold if a judge determined it is necessary and proper. The request also includes forcing defendants to go through a trial via teleconference without their consent.

Attorney General Bill Barr later called it “nonsense” that the DOJ was looking to expand its own power. “It’s a gross mischaracterization,” Barr said of the reports.

A Justice Department spokeswoman clarified on Monday after the original Politico article that the judges would be given the power to suspend those court procedures — the executive branch would not be given the ability to actually suspend individuals’ rights.

“Bottom line: The proposed legislative text confers powers upon judges. It does not confer new powers upon the executive branch,” a statement posted by DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said Monday. “These provisions are designed to empower the courts to ensure the fair and effective administration of justice.”

The request was quickly condemned by lawmakers from both parties.

Republican Senator Rand Paul, who was recently confirmed to have the coronavirus, also called COVID-19, also spoke out against the proposal.

“We absolutely must, must, resist government run amok taking advantage of a crisis. This is how your liberty dies. Stand up America and resist,” he wrote on Twitter.

Republican Senator Mike Lee also spoke out against the proposal.

“Over my dead body,” he tweeted.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted, “Two Words: Hell No.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also tweeted, “Absolutely not.”

The request has also sparked a backlash from civil liberties advocates, who believe if it passed, it could threaten civilian’s rights and democratic institutions.

“Not only would it be a violation of that, but it says ‘affecting pre-arrest,’” said the executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Norman L. Reimer. “So that means you could be arrested and never brought before a judge until they decide that the emergency or the civil disobedience is over. I find it absolutely terrifying. Especially in a time of emergency, we should be very careful about granting new powers to the government.”

This article has been updated to include Bill Barr’s latest comments addressing the emergency powers request.