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Attorney General William Barr tells prosecutors to be on watch for ‘overbearing’ coronavirus measures


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(CNN) — Attorney General William Barr told federal prosecutors across the country to be on guard for overbearing state and local coronavirus measures.

In a memo Monday, Barr called stay-at-home orders “necessary” but “tremendous burdens,” and warned that the Justice Department could step in to fight policies that go too far.

“If a state or local ordinance crosses the line from an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional and statutory protections, the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court,” Barr wrote in the memo the department shared with CNN.

The directive comes as social distancing policies have begun to splinter across the country, with a number of states rolling back strict guidelines while others remain under near-lockdown.

Throughout the pandemic, Barr has expressed unease with stay-at-home orders, lamenting them in interviews as “draconian” and “onerous” and signaling that the Justice Department was willing to fight governors whose policies were seen as discriminatory or impairing interstate commerce.

But in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt last week, Barr said that he has so far not seen a need for such a Justice Department move. The “best approach,” Barr said, was for the Justice Department to file statements of interest and side with plaintiffs in individual lawsuits, like the department did earlier this month after a Mississippi church sued to overturn a municipal order that prohibited drive-in services.

In the memo, Barr tapped the US attorney in Detroit, Matthew Schneider, as well as the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division, Eric Dreiband, to lead the effort to “oversee and coordinate our efforts to monitor state and local policies and, if necessary, take action to correct them.”

Barr has also deputized a handful of other top prosecutors in districts across the country to lead new task forces as coronavirus has spread, including one to combat price gouging and hoarding and another to investigate reports of landlords sexually exploiting tenants seeking rent forgiveness amid the pandemic.