Judicial nominee Goodwin Liu blocked by Senate Republicans

May 19, 2011

Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked the nomination of President Obama’s nominee to a high-profile federal appellate court, the first time Republicans have ever united to successfully filibuster a judicial nomination.

On a 52 to 43 vote, law professor Goodwin Liu fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a GOP filibuster to his nomination. All but one Republican, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, opposed ending debate on Liu’s nomination to the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

In blocking Liu’s confirmation, Republicans have now joined Democrats in supporting filibusters of judicial nominees, something many of them contended was unconstitutional just six years ago when they unsuccessfully sought to change rules to forbid such actions.

During the debate over Liu, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) read past statements by senators such as Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who in 2005 vowed to “never filibuster any president’s judicial nominee.”

“Never is as unambiguous as it gets,” Reid said when closing debate.

But Reid had his own inconsistencies to deal with. Six years ago he proclaimed that filibusters were a vital tool to prevent either party from having “total control.”

The result of Thursday’s vote, some senators said, is that both parties have now embraced a standard that filibusters of lifetime appointments to the circuit courts and the Supreme Court are acceptable.

Liu prompted the full ideological rhetoric that has been commonplace in judicial nomination battles for the past 25 years.

Democrats praised Liu’s life story — the son of Taiwanese immigrants who became a Rhodes scholar and Supreme Court clerk — as an example of the American dream. Liberals view him as the sort of aggressive jurist that they have not seen in Obama’s most prominent judicial selections so far.

Republicans, however, excoriated Liu’s writings while serving as a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, saying he adopted a legal standard of “empathy” that encouraged judges to try to view cases through the perspective of the people appearing before them, rather than through a strict reading of the law.

“What do Mr. Liu’s writings reveal? Put simply, they reveal a left-wing ideologue who views the role of a judge not as that of an impartial arbiter, but as someone who views the bench as a position of power,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. He called some of Liu’s views “repugnant.”

Underlying the debate was Liu’s testimony at the 2006 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Samuel A. Alito Jr. “Judge Alito’s record envisions an America where police may shoot and kill an unarmed boy to stop him from running away with a stolen purse . . . where a black man may be sentenced to death by an all-white jury for killing a white man,” Liu wrote.

This tipped the balance for Alexander, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and several other Republicans who cast their first votes ever to support a filibuster of a judicial nominee.

“He went after the man. He went after the man saying, ‘This man represents a bad side of America because of his philosophy.’ I’m not going to tolerate that,” Graham told reporters after the vote. “You don’t have to accept conservative legal thought. I don’t accept liberal legal thought, but I don’t have disdain for the people who embrace it.”

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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