UC Berkeley Law Professor Goodwin Liu Withdraws Appellate Court Judgeship Bid

Amid unflinching Republican opposition, embattled judicial nominee Goodwin Liu has officially withdrawn his name for a federal post that many political and legal insiders have viewed as his stepping stone to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A University of California, Berkeley law professor and associate dean, Liu thanked President Barack Obama in a letter Wednesday describing his nomination as “a source of tremendous pride” but that he and his family “have decided it is time for us to regain the ability to make plans for the future.”

Obama originally tapped Liu in February 2010 to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. However, the full Senate has never voted on his nomination, resulting in its expiration upon congressional adjournment and Obama subsequently re-submitting his name.  

The San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit has jurisdiction over cases from Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state. Political and legal observers estimate that 40 percent of this country’s Asian Americans live in these states, but no Asian American currently sits on this appellate court. Of the nation’s 875 federal judgeships, only 14 are held by Asians, and only one of those is at the appellate level, according to the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association.

Perhaps publicly acknowledging this national void along with Liu’s individual potential, one Democratic senator last year opened Liu’s confirmation hearing in one of its few light-hearted moments by welcoming the professor to not only that particular proceeding but also to “the Supreme Court nomination process.”

Indeed, as the stalled nomination dragged on month after month, support from conservative scholars emerged. John Yoo, the former deputy assistant attorney general who came under fire for authoring “torture memos” under former President George W. Bush, once told the Los Angeles Times that “for a Democratic nominee, (Liu) is a very good choice.” Yoo is now a UC Berkeley law professor. And University of Minnesota law professor Richard Painter praised Liu as “qualified, measured and mainstream.” Painter was the White House’s chief ethics lawyer under Bush.

Nonetheless, many Republicans have labeled Liu a judicial activist due to his legal writings on affirmative action, same-sex marriage and the death penalty. They also have complained of his 2006 testimony opposing confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Jr. Republican senators closed ranks and blocked a confirmation vote last week in a rare filibuster, cutting off debate in a 52-43 vote, with Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the lone Republican siding with Democrats.

UC Berkeley law dean Christopher Edley says he was “nauseated about the Liu episode” and blasted the Republican actions as “shameful.” Edley noted that ironically, the filibuster coincided with his meeting a delegation of lawyers from China, an occasion in which “I had planned to talk about our national pride in having a federal judiciary independent of partisan politics.”

NAPABA executive director Tina Matsuoka not only criticized Senate Republicans for filibustering but Democrats as well for failing to bring the nomination to a vote last year when they held more seats.

A 2008 Diverse Emerging Scholar, Liu is a former law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and was an appellate litigator for O’Melveny & Myers law firm’s Washington, D.C., office. He dropped notions of a career in medicine while studying philosophy at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. A Yale Law School graduate, he joined UC Berkeley in 2003 and was the inaugural recipient of the Educational Law Association’s Stephen S. Goldberg Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Education Law. Liu won UC Berkeley’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2009, the school’s top honor for teaching excellence.