A network of conservative leaders, donors and organizations has launched a legal onslaught against state and local restrictions intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus, pushing to allow churches to hold services, businesses to reopen and people to be able to visit with family and friends.
They have been emboldened in recent days by increasing signs of support from a powerful ally: The Justice Department.
Justice Department officials have spoken on conference calls with leaders of conservative groups, who have flagged individual cases as worthy of the department’s review. Some cabinet officials have signaled that they back the effort by participating in private calls with conservative allies, according to multiple people involved with the calls.
This week the Justice Department delivered the clearest show of support yet when Attorney General William P. Barr issued a memorandum directing two of his department’s top lawyers to lead an effort with other federal agencies to monitor state and local policies “and, if necessary, take action to correct” those that “could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.”
“We do not want to unduly interfere with the important efforts of state and local officials to protect the public,” Mr. Barr wrote. “But the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis.”
Though the Justice Department has so far weighed in formally on only one case — a lawsuit by a Baptist church in Greenville, Miss. — the new directive reinforced the message that court challenges to state and local restrictions by President Trump’s allies could get a favorable viewing, and potential support, from the administration.
The guidance raises the prospect that the Trump administration could side with supportive groups in legal challenges against elected state and local leaders who enacted policies that were intended to stave off the spread of the virus, which has led to more than 53,000 deaths. Public health officials fear the virus’s spread could be accelerated by premature lifting of restrictions.
But Mr. Trump has encouraged his allies’ protests against the restrictions and has sometimes pressured state and local officials to roll them back, while expressing concern that the public health benefit of the orders might not offset the economic damage they cause, which is seen as threatening his re-election chances.
Sure, that’s perfectly normal. Department of Justice lawyers conferring with the president’s political allies to determine if they want to join lawsuits they are filing to help him with his re-election campaign.