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California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu Traces Role of Passion, Politics in Legal Career

Justice Goodwin Liu

September 30, 2013

Justice Goodwin Liu of the California Supreme Court recounted his serendipitous pathway to the bench during a visit to the law school on Sept. 27.

“My path was really not planned,” said Liu, a former Rhodes Scholar and former professor of law and associate dean of the law school at the University of California-Berkeley who initially expected to follow in the his parents’ footsteps and become a physician.

Having studied biology and physiology, Liu felt drawn to policy and law after deferring his entry into medical school and spending two years in government service.

“Sometimes your side interests are your true passion and they move to the center,” said Liu, who graduated from Yale Law School, where he and Professor Anil Kalhan were roommates.

A respected scholar on constitutional law and education law, and policy and a popular professor at Berkeley, Liu heard that his name was being circulated as a potential nominee to the federal bench after President Obama was elected.

“I thought nothing of it,” Liu said, recounting the surprise of getting a phone call from the White House inquiring about his interest in being considered for an appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit early in 2010.

The nomination was stalled in the U.S. Senate for more than a year, a phenomenon that has become increasingly frequent since 1980, Liu said.

Appointments to federal district and circuit courts were viewed as a senatorial prerogative, which “kept political dynamics of the process in check” until President Reagan began opting to hand-pick individuals for the bench, Liu said.

While there is a legitimate role for politics in vetting life-long judicial appointments, Liu said, the Senate’s rising use of the filibuster has complicated efforts to fill vacancies on the federal bench.

The same day in 2011 that Liu withdrew his nomination for the Ninth Circuit seat, California Gov. Jerry Brown called to discuss a potential appointment to the state’s highest court.

Two lengthy chats about theories of law that Liu had with Brown left him wondering if he would be appointed, but the one-time professor was sworn in just two days before the California Supreme Court heard arguments on Prop 8, which would have banned same-sex marriage under the state constitution.

Liu’s knowledge of constitutional matters gave him limited preparation for the court, which handles “everything under the sun.”

Calling the traditional law school curriculum “very outdated,” Liu said students would be well served by learning as much as possible about administrative law, legislation and statutory interpretation, since commonly “seek refuge in statutory interpretation” to avoid the perception that they are actually creating law.

He urged the students in the crowded lecture hall to pursue their own passions and interests, instead of strategizing for the future.

“Truly pursue the things you feel passionate about,” he advised. “Let the chips fall where they may.”