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HILLSDALE, Mich. (ChurchMilitant.com) - America's chief law enforcer is blasting the coronavirus lockdowns in relation to civil liberties.
United States Attorney General William Barr delivered a prepared speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan on Wednesday — Constitution Day — which commemorates the Framers' signing of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia in 1789. His speech jabbed Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutors for abusing their power and DOJ's career staff for overreach of duties. But Barr's comments in the Q&A session following the speech have been reverberating across social media.
When the event host asked the attorney general to explain the "constitutional hurdles for forbidding a church from meeting during COVID-19," Barr cut loose comparing "the national lockdown" and "the stay-at-home orders" to "house arrest."
"Other than slavery — which was a different kind of restraint — this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history," he added.
Barr then pointed to state governors who have been using their executive powers to restrain citizens and businesses from going back to work.
Barr's prepared comments were also starred with striking insights and comments.
He lamented that "many colleges these days don't even teach the Constitution, much less celebrate it." "But at Hillsdale [College]," he observed, "you recognize that the principles of the founding are as relevant today as ever — and vital to the success of our free society."
He pushed back against a two-tier standard of justice. "The essence of the rule of law is that whatever rule you apply in one case must be the same rule you would apply to similar cases. Treating each person equally before the law includes how the Department enforces the law," he said.
"We should not prosecute someone for wire fraud in Manhattan using a legal theory we would not equally pursue in Madison or in Montgomery," he exemplified. Nor should the country "allow prosecutors in one division to bring charges using a theory that a group of prosecutors in the division down the hall would not deploy against someone who engaged in indistinguishable conduct."
Some of the attorney general's remarks evoked the ongoing politicized prosecution of President Trump's former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, among others, and the Justice Department's effort to drop the case.
Criminalizing politics is "not healthy," he said, elaborating:
The criminal law is supposed to be reserved for the most egregious misconduct — conduct so bad that our society has decided it requires serious punishment, up to and including being locked away in a cage.
These tools are not built to resolve political disputes and it would be a decidedly bad development for us to go the way of third world nations where new administrations routinely prosecute their predecessors for various ill-defined crimes against the state. The political winners ritually prosecuting the political losers is not the stuff of a mature democracy.
He took the opportunity to underscore the significance of elections — and elected officials.
Line prosecutors ... are generally part of the permanent bureaucracy. They do not have the political legitimacy to be the public face of tough decisions, and they lack the political buy-in necessary to publicly defend those decisions. Nor can the public and its representatives hold civil servants accountable in the same way as appointed officials. Indeed, the public's only tool to hold the government accountable is an election — and the bureaucracy is neither elected nor easily replaced by those who are.
He also affirmed his role as the "chief lawyer" of the federal government of the United States. "Good leaders at the Justice Department — as at any organization — need to trust and support their subordinates. But that does not mean blindly deferring to whatever those subordinates want to do."
"When something goes wrong at the Department of Justice, the buck stops at the top," he said. "28 U.S.C. § 509 could not be plainer: 'All functions of other officers of the Department of Justice and all functions of agencies and employees of the Department of Justice are vested in the Attorney General.'"
Barr's remarks regarding the overreach of government during the pandemic is not the first time he has sounded the alarm regarding the abuse of First Amendment rights, particularly the freedom of religion.
In April, Barr's DOJ issued a memorandum to all U.S. attorneys to "be on the lookout for state and local directives that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens." The memorandum further read:
Many policies that would be unthinkable in regular times have become commonplace in recent weeks, and we do not want to unduly interfere with the important efforts of state and local officials to protect the public. But the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis. We must therefore be vigilant to ensure its protections are preserved at the same time that the public is protected.
The memo proved to be effective, reported Breitbart in May. For example, in Greenville, Mississippi, when drive-thru services were banned, parishioners sitting in their cars received $500 fines from police. But When the church sued, the DOJ filed a "statement of interest" backing the church.
"After we filed, the City of Greenville backed off and announced they were not going to seek to enforce any penalties or the citation," Eric S. Dreiband, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ told Breitbart.
Barr also elaborated on the topic of government overreach, specifically government agents becoming obsessed with "criminalizing all manner of questionable conduct." He called such agents "moral busybodies" who become so invested in a case they act above the law while trying to administer it. Barr quoted a passage by C.S. Lewis to support his point:
It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.
The attorney general ended on a note of strength and resilience.
This criminalization of politics will only worsen until we change the culture of concocting new legal theories to criminalize all manner of questionable conduct. Smart, ambitious lawyers have sought to amass glory by prosecuting prominent public figures since the Roman Republic. It is utterly unsurprising that prosecutors continue to do so today to the extent the Justice Department's leaders will permit it.
But he declared, "As long as I am attorney general, we will not."
He stated unequivocally: "Our job is to prosecute people who commit clear crimes. It is not to use vague criminal statutes to police the mores of politics or general conduct of the citizenry ... If we do not," he predicted, "more lives will be unfairly ruined," again an evocation of Gen. Flynn's legal predicament.