Senate confirms David Barron to be federal judge

David Barron testifies before the Senate Judicary Committee during his nomination hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Nov. 20, 2013 in Washington, DC.
David Barron testifies before the Senate Judicary Committee during his nomination hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Nov. 20, 2013 in Washington, DC.

The former Justice Department official who co-authored a legal memo justifying the use of lethal force against American citizens suspected of terrorism abroad will soon take his seat on the federal bench.

The Senate voted 53-45 Thursday, along party lines, to confirm David Barron, who was nominated to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. 

As an official in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, charged with giving legal advice to the executive branch, Barron co-authored the legal memos justifying the use of lethal force against slain extremist preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, an American killed in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen. Administration officials said he was a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Barron's role in crafting the memo became an obstacle on the way to his confirmation, as civil liberties groups and senators raised objections over White House secrecy surrounding its targeted killing policy.

The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter weeks ago urging senators not to vote on Barron's nomination until the White House shared any memos authored by Barron with the full Senate. At that point, only senators on the intelligence and judiciary committees had seen memos related to the use of lethal force against U.S. citizen terrorism suspects abroad, and only because of objections raised last year over Obama's nominee for CIA director. The White House ultimately agreed to share the memos related to the use of force against American citizens with the Senate.

Democratic Colorado Sen. Mark Udall had said he would vote against Barron unless the administration complied with a court order to release the targeted killing documents to the public, not just the Senate. Last month a federal court sided with the ACLU and the New York Times in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking more information on the targeted killing program. The administration announced earlier this week it would comply with the order, and Udall said he could now support Barron in good conscience. Udall and other Democrats have said they believe the killing of al-Awlaki was lawful.

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul took to the Senate floor Wednesday to say he could not vote for Barron because he objected to the use of lethal force against an American citizen without a trial. Paul said he would "oppose the nomination of anyone who would argue that the president has the power to kill American citizens not involved in combat." Paul implored Democrats to vote against Barron, but in the end only two did: joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. 

The Barron nomination pitted civil libertarian groups against liberal legal organizations, factions typically allied with each other. Barron had been a prominent critic of the Bush administration's excesses in the war on terror, and he is considered a first-rate lawyer by prominent liberal legal groups, who supported his confirmation.

In the end, the ACLU tried to persuade senators to delay the vote, arguing that the White House may have been withholding targeted killing memos authored by Barron. 

David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University and a prominent civil libertarian, wrote more than a week ago that he thought Barron should be confirmed. 

"Barron is a highly qualified lawyer who I know personally to be thoughtful, considerate, open-minded, and brilliant," Cole wrote. "I have no hesitation in saying that David Barron should be confirmed."