In a memorandum issued Monday, Attorney General William Barr instructed federal prosecutors to "be on the lookout" for state and local ordinances that violate Americans' constitutional rights and civil liberties.
"The Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis," he added.
The new instructions come as Americans across the country continue to live under burdensome social distancing guidelines as part of a nationwide effort to combat the coronavirus. In several states, Americans have taken to the streets to protest guidelines that they view as unduly restrictive.
Now it appears that the Department of Justice will also be monitoring potential state and local abuses of power.
"I am directing each of our United States Attorneys to also be on the lookout for state and local directives that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens," Barr wrote in the memorandum.
Barr noted that in a prior memoranda, he directed U.S. attorneys to "prioritize cases against those seeking to illicitly profit from the pandemic" by hoarding vital medical supplies in order to sell them at exorbitant prices. But now, prosecutors are also to prioritize potentially unconstitutional state and local orders.
"The legal restrictions on state and local authority are not limited to discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers," Barr wrote. "For example, the Constitution also forbids, in certain circumstances, discrimination against disfavored speech and undue interference with the national economy. If a state or local ordinance crosses the line from an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID-19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional and statutory protections, the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court."
"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," he continued. "But the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis."
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Eric Dreiband, and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Matthew Schneider, have been tasked with coordinating the new effort. They will work in cooperation with state and local officials as well as with DOJ offices and other federal agencies.