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WASHINGTON—Senate Republicans blocked law professor Goodwin Liu's appointment to a federal appeals court Thursday, when Democrats fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to end a filibuster.
Mr. Liu, whom liberal legal scholars saw as a rising star, proved more contentious than even President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominees, as conservative groups mobilized to keep the Rhodes Scholar from joining the San Francisco-based Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Many observers have viewed the 40-year-old Mr. Liu, a former law clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as a future Democratic Supreme Court candidate.
"Goodwin Liu would have brought sterling credentials, great intellect, and a compelling life story to the bench," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said after the vote. "Unfortunately his nomination today fell victim to persistent and serious misrepresentations of his record."
In a floor speech, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) called Mr. Liu "a left-wing ideologue who views the role of a judge not as that of an impartial arbiter, but as someone who views the bench as a position of power."
Born: 1970 in Augusta, Ga.
Education: Bachelor's degree at Stanford University; master's degree at Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar); Yale Law School
Clerked for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Experience: Associate, O'Melveny & Myers; Education Department official, Clinton administration; program officer, Corporation for National and Community Service; board chairman, American Constitution Society
Currently: Law professor, University of California, Berkeley
Source: University of California, Berkeley
Mr. Liu declined to comment after the vote.
One Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, joined Democrats in voting to break the filibuster. One Democrat, Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, voted with Republicans to sustain it.
Mr. Liu has written extensively on social issues including affirmative action, school desegregation and welfare. He has been highly critical of some decisions of the Supreme Court's conservative majority, particularly a 2007 ruling that barred local school boards from adopting integration plans that consider race in pupil assignments.
The Liu nomination became an ideological flash point because, unlike most Obama nominees, the University of California, Berkeley professor has visibly campaigned to revive liberal approaches to jurisprudence, which have been under conservative assault since the Nixon administration.
Mr. Liu co-wrote a 2008 book, "Keeping Faith with the Constitution," intended to offer a liberal alternative to conservative approaches to legal interpretation. He is a past board chairman of the American Constitution Society, a network of scholars, students and practitioners that liberals established as a counterpoint to the conservative Federalist Society.
While Republican administrations often have looked for judicial nominees with academic pedigrees to promote conservative legal views, Democrats have concentrated on diversifying the bench with women and minority candidates.
Mr. Liu, born in Georgia to Taiwanese immigrants, was "in some ways more like the nominations that have been characteristic of Republican presidents, who have over the years nominated a ton of star professors from law schools," said Doug Kendall, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center. "He is one of the few brilliant and young progressives that President Obama has nominated to the bench."
Edward Whelan, president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, conceded that Mr. Liu is "a very talented fellow," but said "he embraces a freewheeling constitutional approach" that approves of such practices as affirmative action and same-sex marriage.
Moreover, Mr. Whelan said, Republicans were offended at the vocal stand Mr. Liu took against the Supreme Court nominations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
"There's a price to pay for his own misconduct," Mr. Whelan said.
It was unclear Thursday whether the Obama administration would persist with Mr. Liu's nomination—as the Bush administration did, sometimes successfully, when Democrats filibustered some of its most prized judicial nominees.
Political observers said the Liu filibuster is likely to be a talking point when Democrats raise funds and campaign among Asian-American voters.
"This will affect campaign contributions, there's no doubt about that," said James Lai, a political science professor at Santa Clara University.