Attorney general calls lockdown orders ‘house arrest,’ threatens legal action

Comparing nationwide lockdown orders to "house arrest," Attorney General William Barr has suggested the Justice Department could take legal action against states and governors to end social restrictions designed to slow the spread of coronavirus, according to a report by CBS News.

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Barr made the remarks Tuesday on “The Hugh Hewitt Show,” a nationally syndicated conservative radio program, saying his department would continue weighing lawsuits that are being filed by citizens and local municipalities and “take a position” if warranted, CBS reported.

“As lawsuits develop, as specific cases emerge in the states, we’ll take a look at them,” Barr said. “These are unprecedented burdens on civil liberties right now. 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.”

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Barr also compared the shutdown orders to “chemotherapy” for the coronavirus, but that “we were getting to the point where we’re killing the patient,” CBS reported.

Barr’s comments came as some states -- including Georgia -- were beginning to announce plans to reopen businesses later this week, with some easing stay-at-home orders but also advising the public to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Most governors, however, are keeping in place the restrictions that have led to multiple violations and arrests nationwide.

“Our federal constitutional rights don’t go away in an emergency,” Barr said in the interview.

The divide over reopening the country was accelerated last week after President Donald Trump urged protesters to “liberate” states from the lockdown orders.

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Since then, demonstrators have organized in several states, skirting social distancing guidelines, which were supposed to be in place until at least April 30 but were superseded last week by a new White House plan for a gradual reopening of the nation’s commerce.

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So far 12 states — including Georgia which has yet to see a drop in new cases — now have plans to reopen far ahead of the timeline that federal health experts have recommended.

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“We’re looking carefully at a number of these rules that are being put into place,” Barr said. “And if we think one goes too far, we initially try to jawbone the governors into rolling them back or adjusting them. And if they’re not and people bring lawsuits, we file statement of interest and side with the plaintiffs.”

The Justice Department has already intervened in one case in which members of a Mississippi church were fined for attending drive-in services that defied orders to stay home, CBS reported.

Several governors have been sued, too, but so far the DOJ has not announced its involvement in any new cases.