9th Circuit candidate’s career marked by rapid ascent, wide-ranging roles

Goodwin Liu may be poised to become the youngest judge on the nation’s busiest appeals court, but he was nonetheless a late bloomer.

Born to Taiwanese immigrant parents, Liu didn’t learn English until he went to school in rural Florida. His parents nudged along his math skills during summer vacations by leaving problems on the kitchen table before they left for work. He wasn’t a good reader, he concedes, and had to bone up on vocabulary during all-nighters with the dictionary to get an SAT score good enough to get into Stanford.

But like the marathon runner he has become in recent years, Liu might have been pacing himself.

In the mere dozen years since he graduated from Yale Law School after earning a biology degree and a stint as a Rhodes Scholar, Liu has clerked for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and federal Circuit Judge David S. Tatel. He’s worked in private practice for one of the country’s biggest law firms, O’Melveny & Myers, and for two government offices during the Clinton administration. He earned tenure, a distinguished teaching award and promotion to associate dean at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, consulted for San Francisco Unified School District and served on the boards of Stanford, the Public Welfare Foundation, the Alliance for Education and the National Women’s Law Center. He has also chaired the American Constitution Society and co-written a book on theories of constitutional interpretation.

President Obama’s nomination of Liu to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals crowns a legal resume that for most lawyers would span four decades. If confirmed by the Senate, Liu, 39, would become the 28th active judge on the court and the youngest by 16 years. He would also be the only Asian American among the nation’s 175 federal appellate judges.


Colleagues describe him as brilliant, indefatigable and likely to apply the law as determined by the Supreme Court even when he disagrees with it. Nevertheless, they expect a rigorous confirmation process when his nomination goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Given the electrically charged climate in Washington, any nominee can become a lightning rod,” said Christopher Edley Jr., dean of Berkeley’s law school. “On the merits, he should be noncontroversial. But the reality will be a roll of the dice.”

Edley laments the loss of a popular teacher but, like other faculty members, sees Liu’s future on the federal bench as a badge of honor for the law school.

Liu is most likely to encounter Republican ire for his testimony against Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito during his 2006 confirmation hearings. Liu co-wrote an American Constitution Society report critical of Alito’s handling of death penalty cases and his views on race and due process.

Two days after the announcement of Liu’s nomination, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, expressed his disappointment at the selection of someone “far outside the mainstream of American jurisprudence.”

The 9th Circuit is “already an activist court that has handed down decisions striking ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance and finding Megan’s Law [governing sex offenders] to be unconstitutional. I fear that professor Liu will be an activist judge in this same mold,” Sessions said, adding that he would withhold final judgment until the confirmation hearing.

Liu’s supporters contend the conservatives are unfairly portraying his record. A leading scholar on education law, Liu supported the use of school vouchers to achieve desegregation -- a position primarily taken by the right in the debate over how to improve inner-city schools. He has defended the No Child Left Behind policy drafted by the Bush administration and been critical, at times, of teachers unions in their power to thwart reforms. Liu also accurately predicted that California’s Proposition 8, outlawing same-sex marriage, would withstand a state constitutional challenge.

In the book he co-wrote last year, “Keeping Faith With the Constitution,” he explored the dominant theories of constitutional interpretation, arguing that change is sometimes necessary for fidelity to the framers’ intent, as opposed to strict application of the original text and understanding endorsed in 1791.

Although Liu joined fellow academic liberals in condemning the “torture memos” that gave legal authorization to the use of harsh interrogation techniques for terrorism suspects, he defended Berkeley law professor John C. Yoo against demands that the university fire him for writing the controversial memos.

Yoo said of Liu’s nomination to the 9th Circuit that “he’s not someone a Republican president would pick, but for a Democratic nominee, he’s a very good choice.”

Liu declined to be interviewed, on the advice of White House officials, but remains in the public eye in his teaching role. The Asian American legal community has cheered Liu’s nomination as a long-overdue inclusion of someone who shares their experience and values.

“Goodwin’s nomination is important because Asian Americans are a big part of the United States, and their representation has been abysmal in the federal judiciary,” said Vincent A. Eng, deputy director of the Asian American Justice Center.

Liu was born in Augusta, Ga., and moved at the age of 3 to Clewiston, Fla., where his parents, Wen-Pen and Yang-Ching Liu, worked as doctors. In 1977, the family moved to Sacramento, where his parents still live.

Liu is married to Ann O’Leary, founding executive director of Berkeley’s Center on Health, Economic and Family Security. They have a nearly 3-year-old daughter, Violet, and are expecting the birth of a son this month.