A few days after his recent nomination to the California Supreme Court, UC Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu found himself in familiar territory.

Conservative Republicans were calling him a "bad choice" for the state's high court. Foes of gay marriage branded him biased and unfit for the job. Critics tried to tar him with the ghost of former Chief Justice Rose Bird, Gov. Jerry Brown's most infamous and ill-fated past Supreme Court choice.

But for the 40-year-old Liu, the latest slings and epithets are old hat. He's already been through the ringer, a veteran of four marathons who has survived his own political marathon. For 18 months, Liu endured adjective after adjective as critics waged a withering campaign to sink his nomination to a prestigious federal appeals court, calling him everything from "left-wing ideologue" to "radical."

Liu appeared to lose that campaign when in May he withdrew his bid for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, seemingly ready to retreat back into academia as a footnote in history. But Brown had other ideas.

After two long meetings this summer cinched the result, Brown plucked Liu from political ruin for the state Supreme Court, setting up a confirmation hearing later this month. The Democratic governor chose the liberal legal scholar whom Republicans worried would be their Voldemort in robes, a potential threat to someday reach the U.S. Supreme Court, to join perhaps the most influential state Supreme Court in the country.

"To put the most charitable spin on it, Brown was trying to make a statement," said Curt Levey, head of a conservative Washington, D.C., legal group that opposed Liu's 9th Circuit bid.


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Confirmation expected

Brown's advisers, however, say the governor was trying to make a different statement by elevating Liu, considered one of the nation's brightest legal minds. And barring unforeseen circumstances, Liu is expected to be confirmed when a three-member commission considers his nomination.

California Republicans and gay marriage foes have pledged to mount another campaign against him, but they concede it will be hard to keep him off the high court. The commission hasn't turned down a governor's Supreme Court pick since the 1940s.

"It's an uphill battle, no question," said Thomas Del Beccaro, chair of the state Republican Party.

There certainly appear to be no secrets or fresh debates to consider in evaluating Brown's first judicial pick since he took office in January. Liu, the son of Taiwanese immigrants who went from a schoolboy trying to learn English to a Rhodes scholar, has had his record turned inside out.

"One of the virtues of Goodwin Liu is that nobody ever nominated to the California Supreme Court has been as thoroughly vetted as Goodwin Liu," said San Francisco appeals court Justice J. Anthony Kline, Brown's legal affairs secretary in the 1970s and now one of his key advisers on judge picks. "There are certainly no skeletons in his closet."

Liu declined to be interviewed. But his background emerged during his battle in Congress, revealing a classic story of a son of immigrants reaching the pinnacle of his profession in a relatively short time. Indeed, if confirmed, Liu would give the Supreme Court an unprecedented majority of Asian-American justices.

The son of doctors, Liu was born in Georgia and moved with his family to Sacramento in the late 1970s. He assembled a glittering résumé, earning degrees from Stanford and Yale, as well as completing his stint at Oxford. He clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But when the White House nominated Liu, then just 39, to the 9th Circuit, the Bay Area legal superstar got demonized as too liberal by conservatives eager to take on the Obama administration's judicial nominations. Liu was targeted on several grounds, including the fact he spoke out against the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Republican senators also criticized Liu's legal writings and positions on issues such as same-sex marriage rights, which he has supported.

'Good nomination'

But Liu also had strong support, even from conservatives such as Kenneth Starr. John Yoo, a colleague and controversial former Bush administration lawyer, said Liu was "a good nomination for a Democratic president" and is convinced he'll make a "fine justice" on the state Supreme Court.

Another colleague, law professor David Sklansky, was troubled by the attacks on Liu's judgment and temperament, which is widely described as unflappable. "He's exceptionally fair-minded," Sklansky said.

While Liu's most recent critics say his lack of judicial experience is another reason to doubt his qualifications, Brown views him as a justice who can raise the prestige of the state Supreme Court. The governor was even willing to disappoint Latino groups who were hoping a Latino would be chosen to succeed Justice Carlos Moreno, the only Latino on the court.

In the short term, Liu is not expected to make a large imprint on the Supreme Court, where he'll join six moderate to conservative Republican appointees. But experts say Liu has decades to make a lasting impression on the law -- certainly not what Republicans had in mind when his 9th Circuit nomination died.

Contact Howard Mintz at 408-286-0236.

GOODWIN LIU
Born: Oct. 19, 1970
Occupation: Associate dean and professor at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.
Education: Bachelor's degree in biology, Stanford University. Master's degree in physiology and philosophy, Rhodes scholar, Oxford University. Law degree, Yale.
Noteworthy: Nominated in July to the California Supreme Court by Gov. Jerry Brown. Nominated in 2010 to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by the Obama administration, but withdrew this spring after Republicans blocked a vote in the Senate.
Personal: Married to Ann O'Leary, executive director of the UC Berkeley Center on Health, Economic and Family Security. Two children. Has run four marathons and is known to be avid cook and fisherman.