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Attorney General William Barr says coronavirus shutdowns are like "house arrest" and threatens legal action against states

Anti-lockdown protests continue across the country
Governors take steps to reopen as anti-lockdown protests continue 04:13

Attorney General William Barr on Tuesday compared coronavirus shutdowns to "house arrest" and suggested the Justice Department could take legal action against states for their restrictions. His comments come after President Trump has encouraged protesters to "liberate" certain states from stay-at-home orders intended to slow the virus' spread.

"These are unprecedented burdens on civil liberties right now," Barr said in an interview on The Hugh Hewitt Show. "You know, the idea that you have to stay in your house is disturbingly close to house arrest. I'm not saying it wasn't justified. I'm not saying in some places it might still be justified. But it's very onerous, as is shutting down your livelihood."

Barr said that if citizens file lawsuits against their states over the orders, the Justice Department will "take a look at it" and "take a position" if it seems justified.

"We're looking carefully at a number of these rules that are being put into place," he said. " And if we think one goes too far, we initially try to jawbone the governors into rolling them back or adjusting them. And if they're not and people bring lawsuits, we file statement of interest and side with the plaintiffs."

He added, "As lawsuits develop, as specific cases emerge in the states, we'll take a look at them."

The Justice Department has already been involved in one case along these lines, supporting a Mississippi church whose members were fined for attending drive-in services that defied a stay-at-home order. Residents and local governments in several states have sued their governors over stay-at-home orders, though the Justice Department so far has not stepped into any other cases.

The Justice Department did ask Congress for expanded emergency powers soon after the coronavirus crisis began, even requesting the ability to detain people indefinitely without trial. Even so, Barr said in the Hewitt interview, "Our federal constitutional rights don't go away in an emergency."

Barr said the stay-at-home orders are like a "chemotherapy" for coronavirus, but warned that "we were getting to the point where we're killing the patient." This echoes a similar remark from Mr. Trump, who in March tweeted, "WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF." The president has increased his pressure on governors to start reopening their economies, even as many states have yet to see a drop in coronavirus cases. 

Protests against stay-at-home orders have popped up in several states over the past week, with activists demanding an end to policies that closed down much of their local economy. Some of the protests have drawn packed crowds that defy social distancing guidance against large gatherings.

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