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GOP blocks judicial appointment

A filibuster prevents a Senate vote on an Obama nominee for the 9th Circuit bench.

May 20, 2011|James Oliphant

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans blocked a vote on the nomination of UC Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu to the federal appeals court in San Francisco, making Liu the first judicial nominee named by President Obama to be successfully filibustered.

The move appears to doom Liu's chances of becoming the first Asian American on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which serves California, Hawaii, Washington and Oregon, all states with significant or growing Asian populations.

Democrats failed to come close to the 60 votes needed to override the filibuster. The final tally was 52 to 43. It was the first judicial pick to be blocked outright on the Senate floor since George W. Bush's first term.

Liu's nomination had languished for more than a year, but Thursday marked the first attempt by Senate Democrats to force a floor vote on Liu, who has been fiercely opposed by Republicans for what they say are too-liberal legal views.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, May 21, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 88 words Type of Material: Correction
Goodwin Liu: An article in the May 20 LATExtra section about Senate Republicans blocking a vote on the nomination of Goodwin Liu to become a federal judge said that Liu, if confirmed, would have been the first Asian American on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Liu would have become the only active Asian American judge on that court. A. Wallace Tashima assumed senior status on the court in 2004. In addition, two other Asian Americans, Herbert Choy and Thomas Tang, have served on the 9th Circuit.

The GOP may also have been wary of Liu's age and future prospects. Just 40, he would be a prime candidate for a seat on the Supreme Court in coming years should he be confirmed.

The nominee's chances for success have never been strong -- Obama has had to renominate him for the seat twice -- but the 53-47 split of the current Senate, with Democrats holding a slim majority, made his odds that much bleaker.

And in the end, Liu did worse than projected, with just one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, supporting him, and one Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who faces a difficult reelection fight, voting with the GOP.

"This is a loss for our country and a deep disappointment for the Asian American community," said Vincent Eng, an Asian American civil rights advocate in Washington.

Liu could not be reached for comment, but the dean of the law school at Berkeley, Christopher Edley Jr., called the vote "shameful."

The rejection recalled the scorched-earth battles over the federal judiciary that plagued the Bush administration, when almost a dozen nominees were blocked on the floor by Democrats, and even further back to GOP obstruction of President Clinton's choices for the bench.

But the Obama White House has largely escaped such battles by selecting mainly uncontroversial choices to fill federal judgeships, although several other nominees have withdrawn or not received a floor vote. Neither of the president's two Supreme Court picks, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, faced any real filibuster threat.

But Republicans drew a line on Liu. They say the Asian American professor, the child of Taiwanese immigrants, is a progressive-minded theoretician with an expansive view of rights under the U.S. Constitution. They pointed to articles in legal periodicals in which Liu expressed support for constitutional rights to education and child care.

Liu "would use his position as a federal judge to advocate his ideological theories and undermine well-settled principles of the United States Constitution," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said on the Senate floor before the vote. "That is simply unacceptable."

Republicans were also unforgiving toward Liu's testimony five years ago in opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who in 2005 was part of the bipartisan "Gang of 14" that helped negotiate a cease-fire under which judicial nominees would not be filibustered except under "extraordinary circumstances," said Liu's attack on Alito's qualifications pushed him to vote to block a vote on Liu.

"I have tried my best not to go down that road because it will destroy the judiciary and disrupt the Senate," Graham said.

Democrats argued that Republicans had long held that filibustering judicial nominees was unconstitutional -- and accused them of hypocrisy on Liu.

"Give this man a chance," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "Don't filibuster him. Let us have an up-or-down vote."

Boxer warned that Republicans would suffer political consequences as a result of Liu's rejection, noting that 40% of the nation's Asian Americans live within the boundaries of the 9th Circuit.

"This is not going to go down easy," she said.

james.oliphant @latimes.com

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