California law professor Goodwin Liu will be a test case of President Barack Obama's ability to win confirmation for a liberal appeals court nominee.
Round One is Friday, when Liu — nominated for a San Francisco-based appeals court — appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee to face Republicans staunchly opposed to his liberal views.
The nomination also will test Republican muscle to block Obama's court picks, now that Democrats no longer have a filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes.
Republicans have marked Liu as a liberal judicial activist. Democrats describe the former Rhodes Scholar, former Supreme Court clerk and assistant dean at the University of California, Berkeley, as a brilliant law professor.
Depending on Obama's pick to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, the nomination could be a forerunner of a partisan fight over the next Supreme Court nominee.
A White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt, argued that Liu "will be a fair-minded judge who follows the facts and the law regardless of his personal beliefs."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he "has a brilliant legal mind and is admired by legal thinkers and academic scholars from across the political spectrum."
Democrats have been quick to point out that some conservatives support the nomination, including Kenneth Starr, the former independent counsel whose investigation led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
The support of Starr and other conservatives hasn't stopped the sharp criticism by the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
He said Liu's nomination "takes on even greater significance in light of the impending Supreme Court vacancy."
"Senators who say they want judges who are bound to the Constitution will have those statements put to the test. I hope this nomination is not a window into what kind of criteria the president plans to use for the Supreme Court," Sessions said.
Republicans have accumulated numerous Liu quotes in writings and speeches that, they contend, makes him an activist. One of them cited: "The question ... is not how the Constitution would have been applied at the founding, but rather how it should be applied today ... in light of changing needs, conditions and understandings of our society."
Liu would bring added diversity to the appellate courts. There are no Asian-Americans actively serving, although Obama also has nominated U.S. District Judge Denny Chin for the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Liu would serve on the 9th Circuit. The liberal Alliance for Justice said there are 25 judges on that court who were chosen by Democratic presidents, and 22 chosen by Republican presidents.
The 9th Circuit hears appeals from lower courts in California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Hawaii and Montana.
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