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Goodwin Liu deserves a spot on the state Supreme Court

Gov. Brown's nominee is a scholar of the law who should make a fine Supreme Court justice.

July 27, 2011

Goodwin Liu could be excused for never again allowing his name to be submitted for a judgeship. As a nominee for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the UC Berkeley law professor was the victim of shameful obstructionism by Senate Republicans and his writings were caricatured to make him seem wildly outside the legal mainstream. His nomination was filibustered and held in limbo for more than a year before he finally withdrew his name in May.

Despite that ordeal, Liu has now accepted a nomination by Gov. Jerry Brown to the California Supreme Court, one of the most prestigious state supreme courts in the country. The federal judiciary's loss is California's gain. Liu's brilliance fully compensates for his lack of judicial experience. He is an expert on constitutional law and education policy who is described by colleagues and opponents as possessing the even temperament desirable in a judge.

His academic acumen may have been his undoing. In scrambling for a reason to oppose him, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee harped on an academic article in which they claimed Liu said that courts should create new constitutional rights to welfare, healthcare and public education. He effectively refuted such criticism, noting that although judges have the authority to ensure that welfare and other benefits are distributed fairly, the main source of those rights is legislation.

Liu is undoubtedly at the liberal end of the legal spectrum. But his philosophy of constitutional interpretation will strike most Californians as reasonable. A book he coauthored with two colleagues said: "The question that properly guides interpretation is not how the Constitution would have been applied at the Founding, but rather how it should be applied today in order to sustain its vitality in light of the changing needs, conditions, and understandings of our society."

Liu will encounter a more civil confirmation process in California than he endured in Washington. Instead of the Senate, Liu's nomination must be approved by a Commission on Judicial Appointments consisting of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris and Court of Appeals Justice Joan Dempsey Klein. If he wins their support, he will take the bench and go before the voters at the next gubernatorial election. But the crucial vote came from Brown, who in this appointment demonstrated imagination as well as independence from the partisan conventions of Washington.

Obviously a supreme court benefits from the presence of experienced judges, but there is also a place for scholars of the law. Goodwin Liu belongs on that bench.

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