Justice Department Proposes Pausing Court Procedures During Emergency

March 25, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
The Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON -The Justice Department is asking Congress to authorize courts to detain criminal suspects indefinitely without trials until the coronavirus subsides.

The request would give chief federal judges the power to alter procedures for arrests, investigations and how the cases are processed through the courts.

The Justice Department submitted its written request to lawmakers shortly after President Trump declared coronavirus to be a national emergency this month. This week, the U.S. surgeon general warned the epidemic is about to become “really bad” in the United States.

One segment of the documents seeks authority for judges to pause the statute of limitations for criminal and civil cases “and for one year following the end of the national emergency.”

Civil liberties advocates caution that slower court procedures risk violating the Sixth Amendment, which is supposed to guarantee defendants a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury.

They also say the authorization sought by the Justice Department could extend far beyond the coronavirus pandemic to other situations the federal government describes as emergencies.

President Trump already is enduring criticism for using coronavirus as a justification to increase border restrictions and to limit asylum claims. He also is asking Congress for more tax cuts to boost economic development as employment and stock markets falter.

The Justice Department submission to Congress would grant chief judges in any district the power to pause proceedings “whenever the district court is fully or partially closed by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience or other emergency situation.” The request would begin with the attorney general.

Another controversial part of the documents would expand use of video-conference hearings, sometimes without the defendants’ consent.

Democrats in Congress are signaling that the proposal faces tough opposition among lawmakers.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., called the idea “abhorrent” during an interview this week on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“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,” she said. “And, in fact, this is the time when we need them the absolute most.”

The Justice Department denied risks that civil rights would be impaired for political reasons.

Justice Department spokesman Kerri Kupec said in tweets this week that the proposal would empower judges and ensure “consistency” in their response to an emergency.

“The goal of these provisions (is) to ensure that the justice system continues to operate equitably and effectively, and to harmonize what is already being done on an ad hoc basis by courts around the country,” Kupec wrote. “Bottom line: The proposed legislative text confers powers upon judges. It does not confer new powers upon the executive branch.”

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