Civil rights advocates are fearful that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) may use the country’s national emergencies, such as the coronavirus and civil disturbances, to push a controversial policy through Congress, according to the online news agency Politico.
After reviewing DOJ documents Politico reported that the DOJ had asked Congress for changes in court proceedings, asylum rules and the statute of limitations. Previously, the DOJ had asked Congress for the authority to extend the deadlines for merger reviews and prosecutions.
The DOJ’s request would not only affect criminal and juvenile proceedings but civil proceedings as well. The changes could expand the investigation process through the pre-arrest, post-arrest, pre-trial, trial and post-trial procedures, said Politico.
Constitutional rights like habeas corpus, the right to appear before a judge and seek release after an arrest, would be impacted according to some legal experts. The DOJ seeks “the ability to ask judges to detain people indefinitely without trial during emergencies” according to the article.
“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,” Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of
Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), said to the Politico reporter. “I find it absolutely terrifying. Especially in a time of emergency, we should be very careful about granting new powers to the government.”
The use of videoconferences to conduct appearances before the court has also been a cause for concern for some legal experts.
“If it were with the consent of the accused person it would be fine,” the NACDL executive 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 the right to be present in court,” said Reimer.
Judges already have the power to delay proceedings amid emergencies, Politico noted. But the DOJ under President Trump’s administration seeks to make all chief judges of a district court act to pause proceedings “by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience or other emergency situation.”
The concern for some is having these policies imposed while there is no end
in sight with these national emergencies. “That is something that should not happen in a democracy,” Reimer told Politico.
And there’s a good chance the changes won’t happen. These policy requests will be difficult to pass in the Democratic-held House of Representatives, according to Politico.