EXCLUSIVE: House Republicans introduced a resolution Friday urging Attorney General William Barr to review orders issued by state and local leaders in response to the coronavirus crisis, and to act against those that infringe on constitutional rights -- part of a growing pushback against what some see as a heavy-handed approach to dealing with the virus.
“The U.S. Constitution is just as relevant and worth protecting during a national crisis as it during times of peace. We cannot use the hysteria surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak to provide a pass to state and local leaders who are abusing their authority to shut down their economies, restrict the free movement of American citizens, and impose draconian penalties that far exceed the seriousness of the action," Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., who introduced the resolution, told Fox News.
"I call on Attorney General Barr to continue reviewing these restricting orders and I call on Americans to stand united in the fight for their inherent rights," he said.
The resolution says “governors and local officials across the Nation have abused their authorities by infringing on the constitutional rights of Americans, ordering private businesses to close, requiring citizens to stay in their homes, and imposing draconian punishments for violations.”
The measure is co-sponsored by Reps. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., Ron Wright, R-Texas, Andy Harris, R-Md., Scott Perry, R-Pa., Jody Hice, R-Ga., Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., and Louie Gohmert, R-Texas.
It accuses officials of “using subjective rationale to determine which businesses and activities are essential to the public and prohibiting the purchase of products they do not believe to be life sustaining.”
It also notes the economic chaos the lockdown strategy has caused, including the dire unemployment figures, a surge in demand for food assistance and increased reports of substance abuse, suicide, child abuse and domestic violence. On Friday, it was announced that the unemployment rate had hit 14.7 percent.
It cites the case of Shelley Luther, owner of a salon in Dallas, Texas, who reopened her business and was hit by a $500 daily fine and seven days in jail. The Texas Supreme Court on Thursday ordered her release after a national outcry, while Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order retroactively eliminating jail time as a consequence for violating the state's restrictions.
The resolution also notes other cases, such as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer initially banning retailers from selling gardening supplies, a man in L.A. arrested for paddle boarding, and a church in Greenville, Miss., cited for holding a drive-in worship service.
The bill calls on Barr to review all orders by state and local leaders “and act against those that infringe on Americans’ constitutional or statutory protections.”
It also calls on states to “restore the liberty and responsibility that every American inherently possesses.”
Barr has shown some appetite to get the Justice Department involved in stopping orders by overbearing state and local officials. Last month, he ordered federal prosecutors across the U.S. to identify restrictions “that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.”
The memo to U.S. attorneys directs the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan to coordinate the department’s efforts to monitor state and local policies and take action if needed.
It comes amid growing concern throughout the country that a strategy of locking down states for a limited amount of time to prevent health care systems being overwhelmed is morphing into a stricter, longer-term strategy with no clear cut-off point. Numerous protests have taken place across the country, while cases like Luther's have rallied opposition.
But the restrictions were put in place amid warnings that the novel coronavirus is frighteningly contagious and deadly, hitting the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions particularly hard. More than 76,000 Americans have died because of the virus and governors in hard-hit states such as Michigan and New York have warned that reopening too quickly could have dire consequences and lead to a second wave of infections.
“As we continue to phase in sectors of our economy, I will keep working around the clock to ensure our businesses adopt best practices to protect workers from the spread of COVID-19,” Michigan's Gov. Whitmer said Thursday as she extended the state's stay-at-home order, while allowing some exceptions. “When we all keep doing our part, we can reduce the risk of a second wave and re-engage our economy safely and responsibly.”
Fox News' Tyler Olson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.