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Obama taps a liberal for appeals court

WASHINGTON — Thirteen months into his presidency, Barack Obama finally gave liberal supporters the kind of judicial nominee they had sought and conservatives feared.

Goodwin Liu, 39, is an unabashed liberal legal scholar who, if confirmed, could become a force on the federal appeals court for decades. There's talk that in time, the Rhodes Scholar, former high court clerk and current assistant dean and law professor at the University of California at Berkeley could be the first person of Asian descent chosen for the Supreme Court.

"I can easily imagine him" as a high court nominee, said Erwin Chemerinsky, a Liu supporter and dean of the law school at the University of California at Irvine.

Obama's choice of Liu for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco drew quick and vociferous criticism from conservatives. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, described Liu as "far outside the mainstream of American jurisprudence."

For the first time, Obama seemed to be taking a page from the playbook of recent Republican presidents who nominated conservatives in their 30s and 40s with the expectation they would have enduring influence in setting policy on the federal bench.

Whether a string of younger, more ideological nominees will follow from the Democratic president is unknown. Of the four Obama nominees announced since Liu's selection on Feb. 24, three are in their 50s and the other is a 45-year-old career prosecutor.

The payoff of the approach taken by President Ronald Reagan is evident today. Young judges appointed to the bench in the mid 1980s remain powerful forces on appeal courts in Chicago; Cincinnati; Richmond, Va.; and San Francisco.

In an era when appeals court experience is virtually a prerequisite for the Supreme Court, five of the nine justices became appeals court judges before they were 45. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy were nominated to appellate judgeships before they turned 40, though Senate Democrats blocked Roberts' nomination near the end of George H.W. Bush's presidency.

First, though, Liu has to overcome anticipated Republican stalling tactics to win Senate confirmation.

Only six of Obama's 15 appeals court nominees have been confirmed even though the president's choices have seemed designed to avoid "high-profile fights," in the words of Curt Levey of the conservative Committee for Justice.

Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice, agreed that Obama has mainly chosen moderate federal trial judges for appeals courts.

"Unlike Reagan and the recent Bush, he certainly has not made ideology the hallmark of his judicial selection program," Aron said.

If there is a hallmark to Obama's choices, it is diversity, former Obama White House counsel Gregory Craig said. Obama has nominated five women, five African-Americans, two Asian-Americans and a Hispanic to appeals court seats.

Obama taps a liberal for appeals court 03/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 13, 2010 7:52pm]
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