UC Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu's path to a prestigious judgeship took much longer than expected and was full of political detours, but he has reached his destination.
A three-member state commission Wednesday unanimously approved Liu's nomination to the California Supreme Court, just a few months after it appeared his aspirations to become a judge would be dashed when Senate Republicans torpedoed his long-stalled bid for a spot on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the nation's largest appeals court.
Liu's confirmation to the state Supreme Court not only boosts the career of a 40-year-old liberal legal superstar, but gives California's seven-member high court a majority of Asian justices for the first time in history.
In sharp contrast to the fierce opposition to his 9th Circuit nomination, Liu breezed through his confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court post, heartily backed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Joan Dempsey-Klein, the state's senior appeals court justice. In fact, while 10 witnesses testified in favor of Liu's confirmation, none opposed him, an easy day for Gov. Jerry Brown's first judge pick in his new administration and first to the state Supreme Court since his first term as governor decades ago.
The governor is set to swear in Liu on Thursday in Sacramento.
In his first public comments since his nomination, as well as since his 9th Circuit hopes vanished, Liu told a San Francisco courtroom packed with supporters that he was "overwhelmed" by the event, joking about how much easier it has been to gain confirmation to the state Supreme Court. Liu's federal nomination was tied up for more than two years.
"I never thought the words nomination and confirmation could be separated by a mere 36 days," Liu said after the vote. "It has been a long journey for my family and me."
With his wife, children and parents, Taiwanese immigrant doctors, sitting in the front row, Liu listened intently as supporters praised his credentials. Christopher Edley, the dean of Berkeley's law school, called Liu's nomination a "no-brainer" for the commission.
Brown nominated Liu in July, turning to him to replace former Justice Carlos Moreno, the lone Latino on the Supreme Court who retired in February. Brown's judicial advisers considered Liu, a former Rhodes scholar and Yale Law School graduate, an irresistible pick once he informed the Obama administration in May that he was withdrawing from consideration for the 9th Circuit in the face of a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
Liu will get a quick baptism as a Supreme Court justice. The court will hear a new round of cases next week, including the latest legal wrangling over Proposition 8, California's ban on same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court is hearing arguments Tuesday on whether the sponsors of the voter-approved ballot measure have a legal right to defend the law and appeal a federal judge's order declaring it unconstitutional when the state's governor and attorney general refuse to do so.
Liu's position on gay marriage was one source of criticism from conservatives who opposed his 9th Circuit nomination. As a law professor, Liu has backed the rights of same-sex couples to marry, and signed on to legal briefs supporting those rights in a 2008 case that prompted the state Supreme Court to invalidate the state's previous ban on gay marriage. Republicans also questioned Liu's views on various constitutional theories, as well as his opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
But Liu has had legions of supporters who point to his sterling legal credentials, including prominent conservative legal scholars such as former Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr and Richard Painter, chief ethics lawyer for former President George W. Bush.
In addition, a State Bar commission that evaluates the governor's judicial nominees found Liu "exceptionally well qualified" for the Supreme Court, its highest rating.
Liu was born in Georgia and moved with his family to Sacramento in the late 1970s. In addition to Oxford, he earned degrees from Stanford University and Yale, and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
In material submitted to the state commission that confirmed him, Liu described how difficult it was for him to master English growing up the son of immigrants, sitting at his kitchen table late at night learning new words just to prepare for the SAT exams.
As the lone Democratic appointee, Liu may have to wait for a while to put his imprint on the state Supreme Court. He joins six moderate to conservative appointees of former Republican governors.
Contact Howard Mintz at 408-286-0236.