DOJ responds to uproar over request for 'emergency powers' during coronavirus

A Justice Department spokesperson issued a clarification overnight regarding a recent “emergency powers” request to Congress involving prolonged pre-trial incarceration during the coronavirus crisis that drew a backlash on social media.

The DOJ claimed that there had been “confusion” after Politico and Rolling Stone wrote that the department was seeking new "emergency powers" for itself that would “suspend” certain rights in criminal matters. In reality, the spokeswoman said, judges would be the ones to determine whether a defendant could be held in custody for longer than normally permitted.

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“Bottom line: The proposed legislative text confers powers upon judges. It does not confer new powers upon the executive branch,” said a statement posted by DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec early Monday morning. “These provisions are designed to empower the courts to ensure the fair and effective administration of justice.”

The reports that the Trump administration was looking to infringe on rights by detaining people indefinitely during the outbreak led to bipartisan outrage from lawmakers including Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who simply tweeted, “OVER MY DEAD BODY” with a link to the Politico report.

According to Kupec, this concern is unfounded. She said the proposed measures, which include suspending certain time limits in criminal cases, were the result of consulting with both the judiciary and Congress in order “to help federal judges more consistently manage the cases within their districts and to protect the interests of justice during this national emergency.”

By suspending these limits, defendants would be able to be held in custody longer before trial and statutes of limitations would be put on hold, should a judge determine it is necessary and proper.

Former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele warned that doing this “is NOT a slope we want to get on,” especially with “this crew,” referring to the current DOJ.

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Kupec reiterated that the power would not belong to the DOJ itself because the decisions would be made by judges. She also noted that nothing will change unless Congress approves the measures and, if they are approved, they would end once the emergency is over or a district’s chief judge determines that the emergency conditions are not substantially affecting how the courts are able to function.

Fox News’ Lauren Timmermann contributed to this report.