WASHINGTON — The Senate approved a top federal judgeship on Thursday for an architect of the Obama administration's legal foundation for killing American terror suspects overseas with drones, as Democrats overcame opposition by Republicans and quelled concerns by some civil libertarians.
By a near party-line 53-45 vote, senators confirmed David Barron to join the Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia were the only lawmakers to cross party lines and vote against the confirmation.
President Barack Obama's pick of Barron for the job last September drew criticism from members of both parties. It became a proxy fight over drone attacks on Americans abroad who the administration believed were terrorists, including those not on a battlefield. Also contentious was the administration's refusal to divulge documents showing why it believes it has the constitutional right to kill U.S. citizens without trial.
Barron, a Harvard Law School professor, has also drawn opposition from Republicans who say he is too liberal.
In 2009 and 2010, Barron was acting chief of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel when he authored at least one such memo. His judgeship nomination gained steam this week after the administration declined to fight a federal appeals court order to release a censored version of one of his memos, though the document has yet to be made public.
On Thursday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., mocked concerns he said some lawmakers have expressed about the possible U.S. use of drones in places like Canada and Germany.
"Oh my God, talk about grasping at straws," Leahy said. "We're dealing with reality here, not Alice in Wonderland."
In a half-hour speech on Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said it was unconstitutional for the government to kill Americans without due process of law. He said the right to trial is a given, even for unpopular defendants.
"It is easy to argue for trials for the high school quarterback or the American Idol winner," said Paul, a possible 2016 GOP presidential contender. "It is hard to argue for trial for traitors and for people who would wish to harm our fellow Americans. But a mature freedom defends the defenseless, allows trials for the guilty, protects even speech of the most despicable nature."
An unmanned U.S. drone killed American-born Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011. U.S. officials considered al-Awlaki to be an inspirational leader of al-Qaida, and they have also linked him to the planning and execution of several attacks targeting American and Western interests, including a 2009 attempt on Christmas Day on a Detroit-bound airliner.
Administration officials have acknowledged that three other Americans have been killed by drones but say they weren't specifically targeted.
Attorney General Eric Holder has said such killings are legal abroad if the targeted American poses an imminent threat to the U.S. and cannot be captured.
Barron cleared a pivotal hurdle Wednesday when senators voted 52-43 to end opponents' efforts to derail the nomination.