SAN FRANCISCO — A California law professor was nominated Tuesday for the California Supreme Court, just two months after criticism by Republicans led him to withdraw his candidacy for the second-highest court in the country.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, said he did not buy into Republican criticism faced by University of California, Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu after he was nominated by President Obama for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In fact, Brown said the high-profile failure of Liu’s nomination propelled him to the top of Brown’s list for the California Supreme Court vacancy.
Brown called Liu “an extraordinary man and a distinguished legal scholar” who is battle-tested to win confirmation after being closely vetted and cleared by the Obama administration and “attacked by the best and sharpest politicians in the country.”
It was Brown’s first judicial nomination since taking office in January. Liu would replace Carlos Moreno, who stepped down in February to go into private practice.
After his nomination by Obama, Liu, 40, picked up support from some notable conservatives such as former U.S. Solicitor General Ken Starr, who viewed him as a rising legal scholar. But his nomination was blocked by Republicans, who objected to Liu’s written positions and said he was too inexperienced for the post.
Specifically, some GOP senators took exception to written testimony Liu submitted in 2006 opposing the confirmation of Samuel Alito, who went on to win an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Liu wrote that Alito was “at the margin, not the mainstream,” as an appellate judge unworthy of appointment to the High Court.
“Judge Alito’s record envisions an America where police may shoot and kill an unarmed boy to stop him from running away with a stolen purse,” Liu wrote.
During his own confirmation process before the U.S. Senate, Liu agreed with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, that submitting that type of testimony “was a case of poor judgment.”
Liu said he should have omitted that paragraph from his written testimony.
A few Republican senators also said they were troubled by Liu joining 16 other law professors who in 2007 urged the California Supreme Court to strike down the state’s gay marriage ban.
The state Supreme Court did end the ban, but later upheld a voter-approved initiative to reinstate it.
In the end, Liu could muster only one Republican vote and a total of 53 votes when 60 were needed to bring his confirmation to a vote. He withdrew his candidacy in May, nearly a year after the president’s nomination.
“I noticed he was having trouble getting confirmed in the Congress,” Brown said Tuesday during a news conference in San Francisco. “Because of that process, his strengths and his biography came to my attention.”
Brown said he called Liu and had the first of several discussions with him about the California Supreme Court vacancy.
“I’m deeply honored by Gov. Brown’s nomination and look forward to the opportunity to serve the people of California on our state’s highest court,” Liu said in a prepared statement.
He declined an interview request by The Associated Press. UC Berkeley spokeswoman Susan Gluss said Liu was vacationing in Maine.
Liu was born in Georgia and grew up in Sacramento, where he attended public schools.
He graduated from Yale Law School in 1998 after attending Stanford University as an undergraduate. He clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and worked as an appellate litigator in Washington before joining the UC Berkeley faculty in 2003.
Liu is the son of Taiwanese immigrants and will become the fourth serving justice of Asian descent if confirmed for the state Supreme Court.
Moreno was the only Latino on the court, and influential Latino legal groups had urged Brown to nominate another.
“I don’t think people should be appointed because of national origin,” Brown said. “Their attributes should in every way be the dominant criteria.”
Victor Acevedo, president of the Mexican-American Bar Association, called Brown’s comments “disingenuous” and maintained national origin is always taken into account for candidates because background is an important consideration.
“We are very disappointed,” Acevedo said. “We are the largest minority in the state and almost a majority, and now we have no representation on the court.”
Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, was one of the candidates Latino lawyers and judges urged Brown to nominate.
Saenz said he was never contacted by the governor and wasn’t seriously considered.
“Liu is a very good lawyer, a strong law professor has a strong belief in civil rights and will make an excellent judge, Saenz said. “But there are many Latino lawyers and judges who were just as qualified. I am troubled by the governor’s decision.”
Moreno, however, said Brown should be commended for the “visionary and truly meritorious appointment” of Liu.
The governor said he has no litmus test for judicial appointments and didn’t ask Liu about his positions on the death penalty, gay marriage or other hot-button social issues.
“I expect he will follow the law,” Brown said.
Liu has never served as a judge. Brown, however, said that lack of experience will add to the diversity of the California Supreme Court, where the six sitting justices all served on lower courts before their appointments. The six are also all Republican appointees.
The State Bar’s Commission of Judicial Nominees Evaluation will first consider the nomination of Liu and make a non-binding recommendation to the Commission on Judicial Appointments, which consists of California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Court of Appeal Justice Joan Dempsey Klein.
The judicial appointments commission will then schedule at least one public hearing. Liu must be confirmed by the commission.
Brown previously appointed three others to the high court when he first served as governor from 1975 to 1983. Those moves included naming Rose Bird as the state’s first female chief justice. Voters in 1986 unseated Bird and the other two appointees Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin over their anti-death penalty stances.