WASHINGTON — Goodwin Liu couldn't speak English until kindergarten, but he went on to become his high school's co-valedictorian, then a Rhodes Scholar and a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Now he's under attack on Capitol Hill, where Republicans are opposing his nomination to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
Liu, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, is attracting far more attention than most judicial nominees. While his backers are excited by his solidly liberal credentials, some of his opponents fear that President Barack Obama is preparing Liu for what would be a historic appointment: the first Asian-American on the U.S. Supreme Court.
"He's by far the most controversial nominee that Obama has named and he's clearly being groomed for the Supreme Court, so there's every reason to give him a full dose of scrutiny," said Curt Levey, executive director of the conservative Committee for Justice. "Look, he was picked because he's a darling of the left, and that's exactly the reason conservatives are up in arms about him."
Liu, now the associate dean of the law school at Berkeley, faces a difficult confirmation fight as the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares to take up his nomination. A hearing is set for April 16.
Liu has advocated many liberal causes, supporting national health care, affirmative action, gay marriage and slavery reparations. He angered conservatives by testifying against Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. He's alarmed opponents by arguing that the Constitution should be interpreted based on "the evolving norms and traditions of our society," which conservatives say is code for judicial activism. His opposition to the death penalty drew fire from 42 of California's district attorneys, who sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee urging Liu's rejection.
Liu's record isn't universally liberal: He's backed charter schools and private school vouchers, which are opposed by teacher unions. He's received words of praise from conservatives such as Kenneth Starr, the lawyer who investigated President Bill Clinton, and California GOP Senate candidate Tom Campbell.
California's current senators, both Democrats, are enthusiastic supporters of Liu. Barbara Boxer called him an "inspired choice," while Dianne Feinstein said he's "as sharp as they come, with a kind demeanor and a good temperament."
Republicans are ready to make things tough for Liu.
While promising to withhold final judgment on the nominee, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Liu was a former board member of the American Civil Liberties Union who was "far outside the mainstream of American jurisprudence."
"It seems to me that his judicial philosophy does not respect the American ideal of judges as neutral arbiters of the law," Sessions said. "I hope my initial impressions are wrong."
Liu is refusing all media interviews before his confirmation hearing.
He has plenty of supporters willing to speak for him, however.
Edwin Prather, president of the Asian Pacific Bar of California, said that GOP senators shouldn't be challenging Liu, calling him a well-respected and highly qualified nominee.
"We need an Asian-American on the 9th Circuit bench. We need Goodwin Liu on that bench," he said.
Vincent Eng, deputy director of the Washington-based Asian-American Justice Center, called Liu "a very exciting nominee" with exceptional qualifications.
Liu, 39, has already attracted a national following. Eng said that more than 400 "Goodwin hearing parties" were scheduled last month in anticipation of Liu's appearance before the Judiciary Committee. Republicans used procedural tactics to delay that hearing.
Liu, the child of two physicians, was born in Georgia and moved to Sacramento, Calif., when he was 7. He served as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives, which sparked an interest in law and politics, and he has degrees from Stanford University and Yale Law School. He served as a Supreme Court clerk in 2000 for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and worked for the San Francisco Unified School District and the U.S. Department of Education during the Clinton administration.
While it's common for a president to tap an appellate court judge as a Supreme Court nominee, Liu would stand out among the nearly 175 judges because of his relatively young age. His supporters say that appointing him after a short tenure on an appellate court would give Obama a chance to shape the Supreme Court for decades.
Levey predicted that the confirmation fight over Liu will be the biggest battle involving a lower-court judge this year. He said he wouldn't be surprised if it's a preview of an even bigger battle down the road.
He noted, however, that Liu has "zero courtroom experience" and shouldn't be rushed into a judgeship.
"Normally, you wouldn't rush someone along — unless there was a reason," Levey said. "And the reason is they're clearly grooming him for the Supreme Court while Obama is still in office. . . . Obama has already signaled that he likes to make demographically sexy picks. I think he'd love to appoint the first Asian."
For their part, Liu's supporters are focused on the present, saying it would be wrong to focus on what may be in the offing.
"The Supreme Court is sort of pie in the sky at this point," Prather said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2010