Absent a surprise vacancy on the Supreme Court this spring, the most heated debate over one of President Obama's judicial nominees this year will involve Goodwin Liu, a Berkeley University law professor who has been nominated for a seat on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Senate on Thursday is set to hold a procedural vote on Liu's nomination. To survive the key vote, Liu will need the support of at least seven Republicans. But if any Democrats oppose Liu, then he will need even more GOP support. Sources on both sides of the aisle predict the vote will be very close.
Critics of Liu have seized on his record on some divisive social issues to argue that he is outside the mainstream of judicial thinking.
"He's never tried a case, he's very inexperienced, he's a very liberal activist lawyer," Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a top member of the Judiciary Committee, told ABC's "Top Line."
Session said Liu's vision of the role of a judge is not as an "independent adjudicator of disputes," but one that allows "personal political views to be part of their decision making process," Sessions said.
White House counsel Robert Bauer today accompanied Liu to meet with key Democratic senators.
Liu was initially nominated in February 2010, but was re-nominated twice amid Republican concerns with his judicial philosophy.
In his confirmation hearing he told senators, "The duty of a circuit judge is to faithfully follow the Supreme Court's instructions on matters of constitutional interpretations not any particular theory. So that's exactly what I would do, I would apply the applicable precedents to each case."
His supporters say that Republicans are afraid that if Liu reaches the 9th Circuit, it could pave the way for him to one day become the first Asian American Supreme Court nominee if President Obama were to have another vacancy on the high court.
Liu is the son of Taiwanese immigrants.
"The problem Republicans have with Goodwin Liu isn't that he's not good enough to be a judge, it's that he's too good. " said Nan Aron, the president of Alliance for Justice. "The circuit courts require judges who are the best of the best, and thoughtful, fair-minded people seeking a strong, open-minded, and constitutionally faithful judiciary should be eager to have Goodwin Liu on the federal bench."
Edward Whelan III, the president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, has written extensively on Liu's record. Whelan is concerned with Liu's broad approach to the law and the fact that he would be placed on what is regarded one of the most liberal appeals court in the country.
"Liu presents a volatile mix of aggressive left-wing ideology and raw inexperience. He's the rare nominee who would threaten to make the 9th Circuit worse than it already is," says Whelan.
"Goodwin Liu's record shows that he is an aggressive left-wing ideologue eager to entrench his own policy preferences in the guise of constitutional law" Whelan argues.
But Aron calls such criticism of Liu unfounded and sparked by the fact that major issues such as health care, immigration and same sex marriage are wending their way through the federal court system.