Justice Department backs lawsuit against Illinois governor's coronavirus lockdown

The statement is part of the department's efforts to police civil liberty violations during lockdowns

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker
(Joshua Lott/Getty)
Updated: May 23, 2020 - 10:04pm

The Justice Department on Saturday issued a statement of interest in a lawsuit brought by an Illinois state Republican against Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker's sweeping, open-ended coronavirus lockdown, a signal that the federal government may have determined the shutdown has violated state residents' civil liberties.

The statement declares that the suit, brought by Rep. Darren Bailey last month, "implicates issues of national public importance regarding the interplay between a State’s compelling interest in protecting public health and safety from COVID- 19 and the equally compelling interest in preserving civil liberties."

Attorney General William Barr said last month that the Justice Department will be reviewing lower government policies during the pandemic to ensure that governors and statehouses do not encroach on civil liberties during the course of the outbreak. 

Bailey "has set forth a strong case that [Pritzker's] Orders exceed the authority granted to the Governor by the Illinois legislature," the statement says. 

Pritzker, the Justice Department notes, attempted to argue on Thursday that the matter at hand was one of federal constitutional liberties and it should thus be settled in federal court rather than in a state courtroom. The department, however, states that Bailey filed a "purely state-law complaint," and "as such, the case belongs in state court."

In a press release from the Justice Department, Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division said that Pritzker "owes it to the people of Illinois to allow his state’s courts to adjudicate the question of whether Illinois law authorizes orders he issued to respond to COVID-19."

Steven D. Weinhoeft, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, meanwhile, said that Pritzker's orders "appear to reach far beyond the scope of the 30-day emergency authority granted to the Governor under Illinois law."

"Even in the face of a pandemic—indeed, one might say especially in the face of a pandemic—States must follow the legal processes they have established to protect their people’s health, while also protecting their people’s rights," the statement of interest declares. 

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