Can the president kill an American simply because the person is dangerous and his arrest would be impractical? Can the president be judge, jury and executioner of an American in a foreign country because he believes that would keep America safe? Can Congress authorize the president to do this?
Earlier this week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder attempted to justify presidential killing in a speech at Northwestern University law school. In it, he recognized the requirement of the Fifth Amendment for due process. He argued that the president may substitute the traditionally understood due process — a public jury trial — with the president’s own novel version of it; that would be a secret deliberation about killing. Without mentioning the name of the American the president recently ordered killed, Holder suggested that the president’s careful consideration of the case of New Mexico-born Anwar al-Awlaki constituted a substituted form of due process.
Holder argued that the act of reviewing al-Awlaki’s alleged crimes, what he was doing in Yemen and the imminent danger he posed provided al-Awlaki with a substituted form of due process. He did not mention how this substitution applied to al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son and a family friend, who were also executed by CIA drones. And he did not address the utter absence of any support in the Constitution or Supreme Court case law for his novel theory.
The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution states that the government may not take the life, liberty or property of any person without due process. Due process has numerous components, too numerous to address here, but the essence of it is “substantive fairness” and a “settled fair procedure.” Under due process, when the government wants your life, liberty or property, the government must show that it is entitled to what it seeks by articulating the law it says you have violated and then proving its case in public to a neutral jury. And you may enjoy all the constitutional protections to defend yourself. Without the requirement of due process, nothing would prevent the government from taking anything it coveted or killing anyone — American or foreign — it hated or feared.
The killing of al-Awlaki and the others was without any due process whatsoever, and that should terrify all Americans. The federal government has not claimed the lawful power to kill Americans without due process since the Civil War; even then, the power to kill was claimed only in actual combat.