One of the requests to Congress would allow the department to petition a judge to indefinitely detain someone during an emergency.
The Justice Department has quietly asked Congress for the ability to ask chief judges to detain people indefinitely without trial during emergencies — part of a push for new powers that comes as the coronavirus spreads through the United States.
Documents reviewed by POLITICO detail the department’s requests to lawmakers on a host of topics, including
- the statute of limitations,
- asylum and
- the way court hearings are conducted.
POLITICO also reviewed and previously reported on documents seeking the authority to extend deadlines on merger reviews and prosecutions.
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment on the documents.
The move has tapped into a broader fear among civil liberties advocates and Donald Trump’s critics — that the president will use a moment of crisis to push for controversial policy changes.
Already, he has cited the pandemic as a reason for heightening border restrictions and restricting asylum claims. He has also pushed for further tax cuts as the economy withers, arguing that it would soften the financial blow to Americans. And even without policy changes, Trump has vast emergency powers that he could legally deploy right now to try and slow the coronavirus outbreak.
The DOJ requests — which are unlikely to make it through a Democratic-led House — span several stages of the legal process, from initial arrest to how cases are processed and investigated.
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.”
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.
“Not only would it be a violation of that, but it says ‘affecting pre-arrest,’” said Norman L. Reimer, the executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “So that means 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. Especially in a time of emergency, we should be very careful about granting new powers to the government.”
Reimer said the possibility of chief judges suspending all court rules during an emergency without a clear end in sight was deeply disturbing.
“That is something that should not happen in a democracy,” he said.
The department also asked Congress to pause the statute of limitations for criminal investigations and civil proceedings during national emergencies, “and for one year following the end of the national emergency,” according to the draft legislative text.
Trump recently declared the coronavirus crisis a national emergency.
Another controversial request: The department is looking to change the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure n some cases to expand the use of videoconference hearings, and to let some of those hearings happen without defendants’ consent, according to the draft legislative text.
“Video teleconferencing may be used to conduct an appearance under this rule,” read a draft of potential new language for Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 5(f), crossing out the phrase “if the defendant consents.”
“Video teleconferencing may be used to arraign a defendant,” read draft text of rule 10(c), again striking out the phrase “if the defendant consents.”
Reimer said forcing people to have hearings over video rather than in person would threaten civil liberties.
“If it were with the consent of the accused person it would be fine,” he said. “But if it’s not with the consent of the accused person, it’s a terrible road to go down. We have a right to public trials. People have a right to be present in court.”
The department also wants Congress to change the law to explicitly say that people with COVID-19 –– the illness caused by the novel coronavirus –– are not included among those who may apply for asylum. And the department asked for the same change regarding people who are “subject to a presidential proclamation suspending and limiting the entry of aliens into the United States,” according to the draft legislative language.
Layli Miller-Muro, the CEO of the Tahirih Justice Center, which advocates for women and girls fleeing violence, said the language would block anyone on a presidential travel ban list from seeking asylum in the U.S.
“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,” she said.
The asylum request comes as the Trump administration on Friday said that it would begin denying entry to all migrants illegally crossing the U.S. southern border, including those seeking asylum.
“I hope we come out of this with a sense of oneness, interconnectedness,” Miller-Munro said of the coronavirus pandemic. “Borders can’t protect us. Viruses do not care.”
DOJ Wants to Suspend Certain Constitutional Rights During Coronavirus Emergency
By Peter Wade, Mar 21, 2020 | Original RollingStone article here.
The Department of Justice has asked Congress for legislation that codifies their ability to detain arrested people “indefinitely”.
The Trump administration is also asking Congress for legislation that codifies the circumstances under which judges use their current powers.
Under current law the government (via the judiciary) can already suspend constitutional rights, without any oversight from Congress.
The Trump Department of Justice has asked Congress to craft legislation allowing chief judges to indefinitely hold people without trial and suspend other constitutionally-protected rights during coronavirus and other emergencies, according to a report by Politico’s Betsy Woodruff Swan.
While the asks from the Department of Justice will likely not come to fruition with a Democratically-controlled House of Representatives, they demonstrate how much this White House has a frightening disregard for rights enumerated in the Constitution.
The DOJ has requested Congress allow any chief judge of a 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,” according to draft language obtained by Politico. This would be applicable 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 processes and proceedings.” They justify this by saying currently judges can pause judicial proceedings in an emergency but that new legislation would allow them to apply it “in a consistent manner.”
But the Constitution grants citizens habeas corpus which gives arrestees the right to appear in front of a judge and ask to be released before trial. Enacting legislation like the DOJ wants would essentially suspend habeas corpus indefinitely until the emergency ended. Further, DOJ asked Congress to suspend the statute of limitations on criminal investigations and civil proceedings during the emergency until a year after it ended.
Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told Politico the measure was “terrifying,” saying, “Not only would it be a violation of [habeas corpus], but it says ‘affecting pre-arrest.’ So that means 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. Especially in a time of emergency, we should be very careful about granting new powers to the government.”
“That is something that should not happen in a democracy,” he added.
DOJ also asked Congress to amend the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure to have defendants appear at a hearing via videoconference instead of in-person with the defendant’s consent, although in a draft obtained by Politico, the sections about requiring consent were crossed out. But it’s not just Americans’ rights the DOJ wants to violate. They also asked Congress to pass a law saying that immigrants who test positive for COVID-19 cannot qualify as asylum seekers.
As coronavirus spreads through the country, activists are calling on politicians in office to release prisoners and immigrants held in detention centers, both of which can be a hotbed of virus activity with so many people in close quarters and limited or non-existent supplies of soap, sanitizer, and protective equipment. Some states have already begun to do so. But with this, the Trump administration is taking steps to hold more people in prisons for an undetermined amount of time — showing their priority is not saving lives but giving themselves more power.