Reporting from San Francisco -- After a protracted and ultimately losing battle for a seat on a federal appeals court, UC Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu sailed through his state confirmation hearing Wednesday to join the California Supreme Court.
During a 70-minute hearing, witness after witness lavished praise on Liu, a constitutional scholar whose nomination to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was derailed earlier this year by Republicans in the U.S. Senate. The state Commission on Judicial Appointments confirmed him unanimously.
"It has been a long journey for my family, and it has definitely ended with the most pleasant, enjoyable confirmation," Liu said, marveling that the state process took "a mere 36 days" whereas his federal nomination languished in the U.S. Senate for more than a year.
Gov. Jerry Brown nominated Liu, 40, to the state high court last month, only a few months after Liu withdrew his battered federal nomination. He succeeds Justice Carlos Moreno, who retired Feb. 28. Liu will be the only Democratic appointee on the moderately conservative court and will face voters during the next gubernatorial election.
Several witnesses who spoke Wednesday appeared intent on rebutting the conservatives who scuttled his federal nomination.
Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy O'Malley said Liu has a "true understanding" of the devastating consequences of crime, and UC Berkeley Law Professor David Sklansky, a former prosecutor, praised him for being open-minded and even-handed.
In a reference to the heated rhetoric during Liu's federal confirmation battle, Hollie Fujie, former president of the California State Bar, said she read every speech and article Liu wrote "to see if he wanted to overthrow the American government." After the audience laughed, she added: "He didn't."
In an effort to remove political influence from judicial confirmations, Californians in 1934 created the three-member Commission on Judicial Appointments, which consists of the chief justice, the attorney general and the senior presiding justice of the state Court of Appeal.
The commission has not failed to confirm a state high court judicial appointment since the 1940s. Chief Justice of California Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who heads the appointments commission, is a Republican. Court of Appeal Justice Joan Dempsey Klein is a Democratic appointee, and Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris is a Democrat. This is the first year the commission has been all-female.
Liu's parents, physicians who emigrated from Taiwan in the late 1960s, and his wife, Ann O'Leary, an attorney, sat in the front row during the hearing with his young children, Violet and Emmett O'Leary-Liu.
A state bar evaluating committee gave Liu the highest rating possible: exceptionally well qualified. The American Bar Association also had given him its highest rating for the federal appeals court, but conservative Republicans nevertheless objected that Liu was too liberal.
No one testified against Liu, although about 20 individuals wrote letters saying he was too liberal. A conservative group called Judicial Watch complained that Liu joined a friend-of-the-court brief urging an end to bans on same-sex marriage. The group said he has an "activist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.
"Professor Liu was one of Obama's most radical and inexperienced judicial nominees," Ernie "Sterling" Norris, lead attorney for Judicial Watch, wrote to the commission.
Although Liu said he believed that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, he also said publicly that Proposition 8 was a valid amendment to the state Constitution, a position the California Supreme Court majority later took in a 6-1 ruling. Moreno was the only justice willing to strike down the 2008 ballot measure.
Liu begins his tenure on the state court with a Proposition 8 case, scheduled for arguments Tuesday. The court will determine whether sponsors of initiatives have the legal right to defend them when state officials refuse to do so, a key issue in the federal court fight over the measure.
In response to a question, Liu said that being an academic required him to be provocative, creative and often critical, whereas a judge's "personal viewpoints have no role."
Liu, who has never been a judge, was born in Georgia, but his family settled in the Sacramento area in 1977. Liu attended public schools and received his undergraduate degree from Stanford University, a master's degree from Oxford University, and his law degree from Yale Law School.
Liu's appointment gives California's high court a majority of Asian justices for the first time. Other Asian members are Cantil-Sakauye, a Filipina-American, Ming Chin, who is Chinese-American, and Joyce L. Kennard, who is of mixed Asian and European ancestry.