A sign for the Department of Justice hangs in the press briefing room Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Washington, at the Justice Department. Attorney General William Barr was to speak about the release of a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report during a news conference. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
While the nation is focused on the spread of COVID-19 and the efforts by the government to combat it, the Department of Justice (DOJ) is asking Congress to expand the department’s emergency powers. According to a Politico report released on Saturday, the DOJ is “quietly” requesting that it be given the authority to compel judges to engage in conduct that could violate the rights of American citizens.
Politico reported on documents that detailed the various requests that the DOJ is making to lawmakers. The topics of discussion are asylum claims, the statute of limitations, and, most disturbingly, the implementation of court proceedings. One of the documents suggested that Congress give the attorney general the authority to ask the chief judge of any district to halt court hearings “whenever the district court is fully or partially closed by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation.”
The DOJ’s proposal would also grant judges the ability to cease court proceedings during emergencies voluntarily. Politico explained that this would 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.”
In its proposal, the DOJ insisted that individual judges currently possess the authority to pause proceedings during emergencies. This ability, they argue, would ensure that every judge could handle emergencies “in a consistent manner.”
On the surface, this notion doesn’t sound too horrible, right? But a closer look reveals the extent to which the state could abuse its power, especially when it comes to habeas corpus, which is the constitutionally-guaranteed right for an individual to appear before a judge after being arrested.
Norman L. Reimer, the executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told Politico that this could enable the government to hold people in jail for an undetermined length of time without a trial. “Not only would it be a violation of that, but it says ‘affecting pre-arrest,’” he explained. He continued:
“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.”
Other suggestions made in the documents were problematic as well. The agency suggested that judges should have the power to force video arraignments in lieu of actual court appearances without the consent of the accused. This could also constitute a violation of a defendant’s right to a public trial.
As the saying goes, “never let a crisis go to waste.”
It appears officials in the DOJ are doing just that; seeking an expansion of emergency powers while the public is distracted and fearful of the coronavirus pandemic. The notion that a federal agency would have the authority to order judges to essentially deny Americans the right to a fair and speedy trial is disturbing and suspicious, to say the least. Imagine what could happen if an administration that did not value liberty were to obtain the power to hold people in cages indefinitely without a trial?
The proposal is not likely to see the light of day while the Democrats still control the House – they’d probably rather approve such an expansion when one of their own is in office. But this story serves as a stark reminder that everyday Americans must not lose focus even when there is an emergency or a health crisis. Any time something like this happens, the government will attempt to snatch more power, and it’s up to us to push back.
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