The Justice Department on Sunday defended its request to Congress for certain “emergency powers” amid the coronavirus pandemic after lawmakers and legal advocates said that some of the proposals infringed on civil rights.
Last week, the Justice Department submitted a list of requests to lawmakers that would alter the timelines that legal cases unfold on as courts have slowed down and closed across the country, according to documents obtained by CNN.
The proposals, which included clarifying language around federal judges’ ability to delay or prolong criminal and civil cases, drew swift criticism from progressives and civil libertarians, who claimed that the asks were an attempted power grab by the Trump administration.
“We have to keep an eye out for these kind of authoritarian and, frankly, for these – this expansion of – and – rather, and suspension of rule of law. It does not matter how urgent times are. We have to make sure that we retain our civil rights,” Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday.
In a series of tweets late Sunday, DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec pushed back, saying that the proposals were made to “promote consistency” and would empower judges, not the executive branch.
“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.”
Judges across the country have already used public interest exemptions within federal law to discount time lost because of court closures against “speedy trial” locks meant to ensure defendants’ right to a quick trial. New York’s federal courts made similar moves after 9/11, when the downtown federal courthouse was closed in the wake of the terror attack.
Under the new DOJ proposals, which Kupec said were made at the request of Congress, judges will also be able to suspend statutes of limitations that define how long after an alleged crime charges can be brought in certain cases. The changes outlined by DOJ would lapse once the declared national emergency ends or if a chief judge within a federal district deems them no longer necessary.
In other requests, the Justice Department asked Congress to change federal laws to deny asylum or visas to people who test positive for the coronavirus. DOJ also asked for Congress to allow video teleconferencing to be used in place of early court appearances in criminal cases and for priority virus testing for federal agents and trainees at Virginia’s Quantico base, which houses the FBI’s training academy.
CNN’s Adam Levine contributed to this report.