Harvard Law Professor David Barron, one of President Obama's most contentious picks for a federal judgeship, was confirmed by the Senate on May 21. Barron, who as a top Justice Department official, wrote legal memos justifying the use of drones to kill Americans overseas who are believed to be terrorists. (Michael Dwyer / AP)
WASHINGTON — The Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a contentious federal appeals court nominee who helped develop the government’s legal rationale for using drones to kill American terrorist suspects abroad.
The 52-43 vote cleared the way for a Thursday roll call on the confirmation of David Barron for a seat on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Boston. Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who is in a tight re-election race, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia were the only lawmakers to cross party lines.
As the Justice Department in 2009 and 2010, Barron wrote memos that asserted the government’s right to kill Americans overseas who are believed to be terrorists. Barron, now a Harvard Law School professor, also worked at the department in the Clinton administration.
A U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011 killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American who administration officials say became an al-Qaida leader.
The department has acknowledged that three other Americans also were killed by drones in overseas counterterrorism operations, but that those deaths were inadvertent.
The Obama administration on Tuesday decided to release a censored version of one of Barron memos. It was not immediately clear when that document will be disclosed. But the decision to not fight a federal appeals court order to release it won over at least two Democrats who had demanded that it be made public.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said it will be “a very constructive step” for the administration to release the document.
“I believe that every American has a right to know when their government believes it has a right to kill them,” Wyden said.
Weeks ago, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., threatened to try delaying Barron’s nomination unless the administration released legal documents giving its legal rationale for the killings.
Paul, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, said this week he would oppose Barron under any conditions because killing Americans without a trial is unconstitutional.
“I cannot and will not support a lifetime appointment of anyone who believes it’s OK to kill an American citizen not involved in combat without a trial,” Paul said Wednesday.
Other Republicans said Barron was too liberal.