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Republicans give Obama judicial nominee cool reception

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
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Goodwin Liu in the hot seat
  • Republicans cite late document submission, lack of experience, question temperament
  • Democrats defend Goodwin Liu's record, say senators should keep an open mind
  • Liu says that as a judge, he'd act impartially
  • If confirmed, Liu would be only Asian-American currently on the appeals courts

Washington (CNN) -- Senate Republicans offered a cool reception Friday to a federal judicial nominee who has become a political lightning rod over his liberal views and his preparation for confirmation hearings.

Lawmakers on both sides traded barbs over Goodwin Liu's qualifications and his past statements on a variety of hot-button topics during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

If confirmed, Liu, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, would be the only Asian-American currently on the appeals courts, the level just below the Supreme Court. President Obama nominated him for a seat on the San Francisco, California-based 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in February.

During his testimony, Liu, 39, calmly addressed the concerns of GOP senators.

"The question is if this the right job for you," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who cited Liu's lack of judicial experience and his late submission of professional documents -- including past speeches and writings -- required by the committee.

The nominee omitted 117 items from a committee questionnaire on his background. The items were eventually submitted, and Liu acknowledged GOP frustration, saying, "I'm very sorry for the omission of information in my initial submission."

Republicans and other conservatives have questioned whether Liu was purposely withholding certain information about his background. Republicans said the material included statements on affirmative action and the effect that Obama's 2008 presidential win would have on the Supreme Court.

Democrats strongly defended Liu's record, saying opponents were unfairly characterizing his words and qualifications.

"I hope they will keep the same open mind kept by Democratic senators," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the committee. "I hope they will not apply a double standard to this extraordinary nominee."

Liu assured the panel that despite some provocative statements he made as a law professor, he would act impartially as a judge.

"My personal beliefs have no role in the act of judging," he said. As an example, he noted, "I would have no difficulty or objection of any sort to enforcing the law as written in enforcing the death penalty."

Many court watchers view the Liu nomination as a political test case of sorts for the pending Supreme Court nomination Obama will soon make to replace Justice John Paul Stevens, who will soon retire. Many liberals hope the president chooses a strong liberal high court nominee, and see Liu as a potential candidate for the Supreme Court someday.

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the committee, noted as much, saying Liu's confirmation "takes on even greater significance in light of the impending Supreme Court vacancy."

Liu's supporters point to his years of scholarship, and especially his personal background. He was born to Taiwanese immigrant parents, attended public schools, then Yale Law School and was a Rhodes scholar. He later clerked at the Supreme Court for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Republicans have made much of Liu's statements in support of same-sex marriage and affirmative action. A recent book he co-authored supported the idea of the "living" Constitution, which conservatives have long disdained. Liu said judges should interpret the Constitution "in light of the concerns, conditions and evolving norms of society," which many on the right deem a playbook for activist liberal judges.

"The question," Liu wrote, "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 also openly opposed President Bush's 2005 nominations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Arizona, told Liu his nationally televised remarks during Alito's Senate hearing were out of line.

At that time, Liu said that "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 ... this is not the America we know. Nor is it the America we aspire to be."

"This calls into question your judicial temperament," Kyl said Friday. "I see it as very vicious, and emotionally and racially charged, very intemperate, and to me it calls into question your ability to approach and characterize people's positions in a fair and judicious way."

The 9th Circuit on which Liu would sit is by far the largest appeals court in the U.S. and includes the states of California, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Alaska, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Montana and the Pacific territories. It is also considered the most liberal federal appeals bench, with 25 judges named by Democratic presidents and 22 by Republicans.

Most of the cases accepted by the Supreme Court come from the 9th Circuit, a sign that the conservative majority on the high court has concerns about the appeals court's rulings.