By The Associated Press
Attorney General William Barr drew sharp condemnation Thursday for comparing lockdown orders during the coronavirus pandemic to slavery.
In remarks Wednesday night at an event hosted by Hillsdale College, Barr had called the lockdown orders the “greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history” since slavery.
His comments, at a Northern Virginia event hosted by the school, also criticized his own prosecutors for behaving as “headhunters” in their pursuit of prominent targets and for using the weight of the criminal justice system to launch what he said were “ill-conceived” political probes.
Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the No. 3 House Democratic leader, told CNN that Barr’s remarks were “the most ridiculous, tone-deaf, God-awful things I’ve ever heard” because they wrongly equated human bondage with a measure aimed at saving lives.
“Slavery was not about saving lives. It was about devaluing lives,” Clyburn said. “This pandemic is a threat to human life.”
It’s not the first time Barr has condemned stay-at-home orders.
He has previously said that some orders were ” disturbingly close to house arrest,” and the Justice Department sent letters to several states warning that some of their virus-related restrictions might be unlawful. Prosecutors also filed statements of interest in several civil cases challenging some of the restrictions.
Barr has faced scrutiny for overruling the decisions of Justice Department prosecutors who work for him, including in criminal cases involving associates of President Donald Trump. But in his remarks, he rejected the notion that prosecutors should have final say in cases that they bring. Instead, Barr described them as part of the “permanent bureaucracy” and suggested they need to be supervised, and even reined in, by politically appointed leaders accountable to the president and Congress.
“The men and women who have ultimate authority in the Justice Department are thus the ones on whom our elected officials have conferred that responsibility — by presidential appointment and Senate confirmation,” Barr said. “That blessing by the two political branches of government gives these officials democratic legitimacy that career officials simply do not possess.”
Barr himself has been aggressive as attorney general in pursuing certain categories of prosecutions, including using federal statutes to charge defendants in the unrest that roiled cities after the death of George Floyd. But he warned that prosecutors can become overly attached to their cases in ways that lose perspective and judgment, listing a series of prosecutions — including under previous administrations — in which he said he believed the government had taken extreme positions.
“Individual prosecutors can sometimes become headhunters, consumed with taking down their target,” Barr said. “Subjecting their decisions to review by detached supervisors ensures the involvement of dispassionate decision-makers in the process.”