DOJ tells Illinois to handle shutdown fight in state courts

The Trump administration struck a blow for federalism Friday, filing papers in court telling Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker that the fight over his coronavirus shutdown order belongs before a state judge, not in federal court.

A state representative sued the governor last week arguing he’s gone beyond his powers in ordering one of the strictest shutdown orders in the country.

The lawsuit says the powers the governor is using only last for 30 days, and he’s extended beyond that as he tried to deal with parts of the state that remain among the country’s hottest spots for COVID-19 cases.

The case was being heard by a state judge until Thursday, when Mr. Pritzker’s lawyers had it moved to a federal district court.

State Rep. Darren Bailey, who filed the lawsuit, accused the governor of creating arguments to try to find a friendlier judge than the state courtroom where the matter was being argued.

The federal Justice Department weighed in Friday saying the governor’s orders “appear to reach far beyond” the scope of state law, and so the matter should be decided inside the state.

“The governor of Illinois 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,” said Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division.

He said the U.S. has a divided system of government and limited powers, both designed to preserve liberty “especially during times of crisis.”

The department filed a “statement of interest” with the federal judge urging the case be fought in the state.

The move is the latest step by Attorney General William P. Barr and his team to police governors’ and local officials’ behavior during the pandemic.

Most of the Justice Department’s actions have been targeted at shutdown orders seen to trample unfairly on religious practice.

But Friday marked a turn.

In addition to the Illinois filing, Mr. Dreiband fired off a warning letter to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city’s public health director, Barbara Ferrer, warning them their that talk of a months-long shutdown could run afoul of the Constitution.

Mr. Dreiband referred to reports that Ms. Ferrer last week suggested stay-at-home orders could last another three months. And Mr. Garcetti said Los Angeles would “never be completely open until we have a cure.” Mr. Dreiband said Mr. Garcetti “clarified” his comments, but the federal government is still worried about “an arbitrary and heavy-handed approach.”

“Even in times of emergency, when governments may impose reasonable and temporary restrictions, the Constitution and federal statutory law prohibit arbitrary, unreasonable actions,” Mr. Dreiband wrote. “Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”

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