The Justice Department has quietly asked Congress for new "emergency powers" amid the coronavirus outbreak, including the power to ask chief judges to indefinitely detain people without trial.
The DOJ has proposed numerous emergency measures, according to Politico, which obtained and reviewed documents the DOJ sent to lawmakers.
In one of the documents, the department proposed that Congress grant the attorney general power to ask the chief judge of any district court to pause court proceedings "whenever the district court is fully or partially closed by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation."
The proposal would also grant those top judges broad authority to pause court proceedings during emergencies. It 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," according to draft legislative language the department shared with Congress. In making the case for the change, the DOJ document wrote that individual judges can currently pause proceedings during emergencies, but that their proposal would make sure all judges in any particular district could handle emergencies "in a consistent manner."
As Politico noted, the proposal — which would essentially permit indefinite detention — would likely violate a person's right to appear before a judge and seek release after being arrested, a constitutional right known as habeas corpus.
Specifically, the Constitution states, "The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it."
According to Politico, the DOJ is also asking to "pause the statute of limitations for criminal investigations and civil proceedings during national emergencies" as well as "expand the use of videoconference hearings, and to let some of those hearings happen without defendants' consent."
The reported proposals were met with swift bipartisan condemnation.
"OVER MY DEAD BODY," Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) responded. "If this is a joke, it's not funny. If it's not a joke, we've got much bigger problems. @realDonaldTrump, please refute and disavow this immediately."
"Two Words: Hell No," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) responded.
"Congress must loudly reply NO," Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) responded.
Meanwhile, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called the power grab "abhorrent."
"There's a long history in this country and in other countries of using emergencies as times to really start to encroach upon people's civil rights. And in fact, this is a time when we need them the absolute most," she said on CNN Sunday. "It does not matter how urgent times are. We have to make sure that we retain our civil rights. And there's no reason for us to be waiving folks' civil rights in an emergency."