President Barack Obama's liberal pick for a San Francisco-based appeals court survived his first Senate test Thursday but still faces strong Republican opposition.
The Judiciary Committee voted 12-7 along party lines to recommend confirmation of Goodwin Liu, a law professor at the University of California law school at Berkeley.
At stake in the nomination is the ability of Obama and congressional Democrats to get liberal nominees through the Senate.
While it's unclear whether Republicans will try to block a vote, a clear sign of trouble came from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Judiciary Committee who has broken with his party on some judicial nominees, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
"I'm in the camp that you can be an active Democrat ... and still sit on the bench," Graham said. "But this guy's a bridge too far for me. He should take those views and run for office."
If confirmed, Liu would be only the second Asian-American on a federal appellate court. Denny Chin was confirmed for the New York-based Second Circuit on April 22.
Knowing they had the votes, majority Democrats spent little time countering Republicans who assailed Liu as an activist who would rewrite the Constitution — a theme the GOP has used since his nomination.
Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the opposition reflected Republican politics rather than a fair analysis of Liu's qualifications.
"Today's debate and vote will likely say more about the senators voting than about Professor Liu," he said.
"No fair-minded person who attended his hearing can doubt his temperament. He answered every question. He assured this committee that he understands the role of a judge, and the need for a judge to follow the law and adhere to the rule of law."
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, ranking Republican on the committee, said in a lengthy statement that Liu's writings indicate he would adapt the Constitution to his own liberal views on the death penalty, welfare rights, education and tax credits for the poor.
Sessions complained that Liu promised to follow the law, but also said he stood behind everything he had written.
"So which is it?" Sessions asked.
Leahy and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., recalled they supported nominees of Republican presidents who had exhibited strong conservative views before ascending to the federal bench.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, criticized the American Bar Association's "well qualified" rating, saying the lawyers' organization failed to follow its own standards that required 12 years of experience as a practicing lawyer or trial judge. Liu's career has been in academia.
The 9th Circuit hears appeals from lowers courts in California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Hawaii and Montana.
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