Barr warns states not to go 'too far' in stay-at-home orders, threatens legal action

He called some restrictions "disturbingly close to house arrest."

April 21, 2020, 4:46 PM

Attorney General Bill Barr, in a new interview on Tuesday, characterized some state 'stay-at-home' restrictions amid the pandemic as "disturbingly close to house arrest" and said the Justice Department will consider legal action if governors start to take restrictions on movement and civil liberties 'too far.'

"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," Barr told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. "I’m not saying it wasn’t justified. I’m not saying in some places it might still be justified."

Attorney General William Barr takes part in the "2019 Prison Reform Summit" in the East Room of the White House in Washington, April 1, 2019.
Yuri Gripas/Reuters, FILE

In the interview, Barr also lavished praise on President Donald Trump's handling of the crisis and cautioned that the department would be watching governors who don't follow the latest federal guidance on phased reopenings for certain parts of the economy.

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"I think the president’s guidance has been, as I say, superb and very common sensical, and I think a lot of the governors are following that," Barr said. "And you know, to the extent that governors don’t and impinge on either civil rights or on the national commerce, our common market that we have here, then we’ll have to address that."

Trump has encouraged protests against stay-at-home restrictions in Michigan, Virginia and Minnesota, among other states, saying residents had been treated "rough."

Last week, the Justice Department filed a statement of interest in support of a Mississippi church whose members were fined after attending a drive-thru church service, a penalty the department argued was imposed unfairly on the church versus other commercial activities that were occurring in the community.

Barr said the DOJ will give similar consideration moving forward to weighing in on lawsuits brought by citizens who feel state and local governments are unfairly infringing on their civil liberties.

"If we think it’s, you know, justified, we would take a position, that’s what we’re doing now," Barr said. "We, you know, we’re looking carefully at a number of these rules that are being put into place. And if we think one goes too far, we initially try to jawbone the governors into rolling them back or adjusting them."

Barr likened the government's response moving forward to a battle against cancer, describing 'stay-at-home' orders as a kind of chemotherapy that will allow states to gain control of the virus's spread.

"The question is you can’t just keep on feeding the patient chemotherapy and say well, we’re killing the cancer, because we were getting to the point where we’re killing the patient," Barr said. "And now is the time that we have to start looking ahead and adjusting to more targeted therapies."

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