RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The soon-to-be-vacant seat on the Supreme Court has been big news. Today, though, the Senate Judiciary Committee turns its sights to President Obama's most controversial lower court nominee. Goodwin Liu is a highly regarded liberal legal scholar, now nominated to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
NPR legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg, has this report.
NINA TOTENBERG: For years, liberal Democrats have groaned about - and sometimes fought - the conservative scholars nominated by Republican presidents to the federal appeals courts. Almost all those conservatives have gone on to serve distinguished careers, sometimes moving the law in distinctly conservative directions - judges like Frank Easterbrook, Richard Posner and Michael McConnell. And some, like Antonin Scalia, have moved on to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Until now, President Obama has not followed the lead of Republican presidents; instead, he's nominated centrist liberals to the appeals courts. So, liberal stalwarts were pleased when he nominated Goodwin Liu, a 39-year-old star in academia and associate dean of Berkeley Law School, where he's a professor.
If confirmed, Liu would also be the only active federal appeals court judge who's an Asian-American. One other Asian-American nominee has been pending since December.
Republicans see Liu's youth, brilliance and personal story as qualities that might make him a Supreme Court nominee in the future. And his lengthy paper trail has galvanized conservative opposition to his nomination.
Born in rural Georgia, where his Taiwanese immigrant parents were doctors, Liu was a Rhodes Scholar, a star at Stanford and Yale Law School and later a Supreme Court clerk. He spent a couple of years practicing law in a firm before becoming a law professor.
Twice, Republicans have prevented the Judiciary Committee from holding a hearing on the nomination, laying down markers of opposition. Ranking Republican Jeff Sessions has promised a fair hearing, but, appearing on "Meet the Press," seemed to have made up his mind.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Meet the Press")
Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): If a nominee is one that is so activist, like Goodwin Liu that's just been nominated, who's written that the Constitution requires welfare and health care to individuals; if it's somebody like that, clearly outside the mainstream...
TOTENBERG: One man's mainstream, of course, is another's gutter.
There is considerable debate about Liu's writings, with his critics citing some passages to suggest he supports welfare as a right guaranteed under the Constitution and his defenders citing other passages to show that Liu has ruled that out.
While Liu has an eclectic record - he is, for example, a supporter of school vouchers and charter schools - there's no doubt that he's also supported many liberal positions, from affirmative action in education to gay marriage. Curt Levey is director of the conservative Committee for Justice.
Mr. CURT LEVEY (Director, Committee for Justice): Goodwin Liu is not your typical liberal. He is very far out on the left wing, even of academia. So, I think that you could think of Goodwin Liu as the Democratic Clarence Thomas.
TOTENBERG: Some conservative opposition to Liu also stems from the fact that he testified against President Bush's nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.
While some critics contend that Liu is not qualified, that he's too young and inexperienced, the American Bar Association gave him its highest rating - well-qualified. Indeed, Liu's biography is much like many Republican nominees of the past - scholars who worked in the administrations of like-minded presidents and became appellate judges in their 30s.
One of those, Pepperdine Law School Dean Kenneth Starr, the former Whitewater special prosecutor, has endorsed Liu, calling him a person of great intellect, accomplishment and integrity who would follow traditional judicial decision-making rules, regardless of where the political chips fall.
A side issue has developed of late, over Liu's failure to provide all of his speech and panel appearance transcripts to the judiciary committee. He's repeatedly added more material to that originally supplied to the committee. That has led Senate critics to call him either deceptive or incompetent.
But his defenders say Republicans are using a double standard. Indeed, Professor Richard Painter, who served as chief White House ethics officer for President Bush, said in a blog post, that Liu had provided, quote, "a lot more information than many nominees do in response to these questions." Painter added that law professors often give the same talk many times and that he doubted the Senate would learn anything new from the typically redundant speeches a professor delivers.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.