A longstanding struggle over confirmation of Goodwin Liu, nominated as an appellate court judge by President Obama, suffered a blow May 19 when Senate Democrats were unable to muster 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster.
In a 52-43 vote, the only Republican to side with ending the filibuster and moving to a final vote was Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., backed the filibuster, and five senators - mostly Republicans - did not vote.
Liu was first nominated for the appellate judgeship early last year. The son of two physicians who came to the U.S. from Taiwan, he is currently Associate Dean of the Law School at the University of California, Berkeley. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University and a Rhodes scholar, he served as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
If confirmed, Liu would be just the second Asian American currently serving on a federal appeals court, and the only Asian American currently on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which serves an area with over 40 percent of the country's Asian American population.
Liu has attracted Republican ire for his support of gay marriage, affirmative action, national health care and reparations for slavery, his opposition to the death penalty and to confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. He has also said the Constitution should be interpreted in accord with "the evolving norms and traditions of our society."
On the other hand, he has backed charter schools and school vouchers, and has been praised by Kenneth Starr, who led the investigation of President Clinton, as well as by Bush-administration ethics lawyer Richard Painter and former U.S. Representative Tom Campbell, R-Calif.
The filibuster against Liu marked the sixth time during Obama's presidency that Democrats have had to overcome Republican efforts to block a final vote on a judicial nominee. It may become the Republicans' first success.
Though there are some 100 vacancies in the federal judiciary, less than half of Obama's 72 nominees for district and appellate judgeships have been confirmed to date.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Republicans were continuing "the pattern they set as soon as President Obama first took office. This is a far cry from when Republican Senators were insisting just a few years ago that such filibusters of judicial nominees were unconstitutional."
In 2005, after Democrats blocked confirmation of several of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees, senators agreed that the filibuster would be used only in "extraordinary circumstances."
A coalition of some 40 organizations, including the AFL-CIO, Asian American and Latino organizations, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Organization for Women, and the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights, backed Liu's confirmation.
After the Senate floor vote, Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference, issued a statement calling the filibuster "a reckless escalation in the ongoing campaign by the Senate's Republican minority to delay and deny confirmation votes to scores of well-qualified judicial nominees."
Forty-three percent of Obama's judicial nominees are minorities and women - a much higher rate than that of his predecessors, according to the Washington-based Alliance for Justice.
Some observers have speculated that part of Republican animosity toward Liu could stem from the possibility that Obama might later propose him as the first Asian American Supreme Court justice.
Photo: Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., joined Senators Harry Reid, D-Nev., Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., Dan Inouye, D-Hawaii and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, in welcoming Goodwin Liu to the Senate. Professor Liu was nominated by the president to serve on the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Via Sen. Boxer's office.