Justice Dept. asks Congress for expansion of judicial powers

Washington — The Justice Department has submitted to Congress legislative recommendations addressing how court cases should proceed as the nation grapples with the coronavirus pandemic that has brought daily life in the United States to a halt.

The proposals were sent to Capitol Hill at the request of lawmakers, who are currently working on a third legislative response to the coronavirus, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said Sunday. The measures were first reported by Politico, and CBS News has not been able to independently verify the content of the documents submitted to Congress.

According to Politico, one of the measures included the ability to seek approval to indefinitely detain people without trial during times of national emergency, like the one the nation is experiencing now.

Kupec wrote on Twitter on Sunday that the recommendations were developed in consultation with Congress and the federal judiciary and designed to ensure the federal courts can “administer fair and impartial justice during the pandemic.”

“Criminals should not be able to avoid justice because of a public-health emergency,” Kupec said. She noted the recommendations were “draft suggestions.”

The recommendations the Justice Department proposed to Congress would allow the chief judge in each federal district the authority to extend deadlines and toll statute of limitations, a power individual federal judges already have.

Kupec said the department also recommended allowing the chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, to suspend the statute of limitations for criminal cases “where a national emergency would materially impair the functioning of the courts.”

The authorities given to the federal judiciary would expire when the coronavirus national emergency expires, or when the chief justice finds that emergency conditions no longer affect the ability of the federal courts to function.

“The goal of these provisions to ensure that the justice system continues to operate equitably and effectively, and to harmonize what is already being done on an ad hoc basis by courts around the country,” she tweeted.

The proposals from the Justice Department will require approval from Congress, and they likely face an uphill battle in the Democrat-controlled House, making their enactment highly unlikely. Already, Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York both expressed their opposition to the proposals.

While it is already within a federal judge’s powers to extend any given deadline and toll the statute of limitations at their own discretion, some have begun to release defendants, recognizing the restrictions COVID-19, the coronavirus disease, has placed on jails.

Last week, Judge Ali Nathan in the Southern District of New York released an inmate from federal custody into house arrest due to visiting restraints the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) placed on facilities across the country.

BOP decided to suspend all visits, including ones from inmates’ attorneys in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Exceptions are said to be made on a case-by-case basis until for the foreseeable future, but in this case, Nathan found “this suspension impacts the defendant’s ability to prepare his defenses.”

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But Nathan’s ruling is not currently the norm, as criminal justice advocates continue to press judges and the Justice Department to stop bringing prosecutions against low – level offenders as a means to reduce the populations of jails across the country.

In a letter to Attorney General William Barr last on Thursday, Federal Public and Community Defenders urged the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, “to use existing authority to take immediate and decisive action to both reduce the number of people entering federal detention and release individuals who are already incarcerated. Failure to do so may well be a death sentence for many.”

While some state and local sheriff’s and prosecutors from across the country decide to place a moratorium on certains arrests and release non-violent offenders, the federal government is operating business as usual. Last week, the attorney general sent a memo to U.S. attorneys encouraging them to continue pressing on amidst the obstacles posed by the pandemic.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal he said, “I am worried about things getting out of control.”

President Trump, too, appears to be aware of how the coronavirus is impacting the criminal justice system. On Sunday, Mr. Trump told reporters during a briefing with his coronavirus task force that he is “looking at” an executive order to free elderly, nonviolent criminals from federal prisons.

“It’s a bit of a problem,” he said.

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