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'Oh Hell No': DOJ Using Coronavirus Crisis to Push for Expansive Emergency Powers

"This is abhorrent (also: predictable)."

The Department of Justice headquarters, February 19, 2020.

The Department of Justice headquarters, February 19, 2020. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Department of Justice is using the coronavirus outbreak to ask Congress for sweeping emergency powers including suspending habeas corpus during an emergency, a power grab that was denounced by civil liberties advocates.

"Oh hell no," tweeted Fletcher School professor Daniel Drezner. 

The DOJ plans were reported on by Politico's Betsy Woodruff Swan, who reviewed the request documents. 

According to Swan:

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."

The request raised eyebrows because of its potential implications for habeas corpus—the constitutional right to appear before a judge after arrest and seek release.

"You could be arrested and never brought before a judge until they decide that the emergency or the civil disobedience is over. I find it absolutely terrifying," National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers executive director Norman L. Reimer told Swan. "Especially in a time of emergency, we should be very careful about granting new powers to the government."

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The documents also ask for the authority to conduct videoconference hearings even without the defendant's permission, banning people with the coronavirus from applying for asylum, and pausing the statute of limitations during an emergency. 

The asylum rules, said Tahirih Justice Center CEO Layli Miller-Munro, are unnecessary and cruel. 

"I think it's a humanitarian tragedy that fails to recognize that vulnerable people from those countries are among the most persecuted and that protecting them is exactly what the refugee convention was designed to do," said Miller-Munro.

The news sent shockwaves through the Beltway. 

"This is abhorrent (also: predictable)," tweeted Economist reporter John Fasman.

According to Swan, it's unlikely the bill will pass the Democrat-led House. 

Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) signaled his opposition to the bill on Twitter Saturday afternoon.

"Congress must loudly reply NO," said Amash. 

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