Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked the nomination of Goodwin Liu for an appeals court judgeship, accusing him of being a liberal activist and handing President Obama his first judicial defeat of the year.
The Republican-led filibuster also may signal the end of January’s gentlemen’s agreement between the Senate’s party leaders designed in part to streamline the judicial confirmation process.
“Republicans have demonstrated a great deal of cooperation in moving consensus nominees through the Senate confirmation process,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The problem is that Mr. Liu is far from a consensus nominee.”
A procedural vote to break the filibuster and allow the nomination to proceed toward a final straight up-or-down vote received a 52-43 majority, short of the necessary 60 votes.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was the only Republican to vote in favor of breaking the filibuster. She said judicial nominees by presidents of either party deserve up-or-down votes. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the lone Democrat to side with the Republicans.
The Liu vote is thought to be the Senate’s first successful Republican filibuster of a judicial nomination.
The president tapped Mr. Liu more than a year ago to fill a vacancy on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes California and much of the rest of the West. His nomination stalled in the Senate amid Republican opposition, and Mr. Obama renominated him for the post in January.
In January, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, vowed to use the filibuster less often in exchange for a promise by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, to allow Republicans more opportunities to offer amendments to legislation.
Mr. Liu is the first of 25 judicial nominations sent to the full Senate this year who hasn’t been confirmed.
Republicans said they opposed Mr. Liu’s nomination because they worried that the University of California at Berkeley law professor would be an activist judge who would play fast and loose with the Constitution from the bench. They also cited statements he has made suggesting support of affirmative action and gay marriage as individual rights.
Mr. Liu’s lack of judicial experience — the 40-year-old has never served as a trial lawyer or judge — also has been noted.
Mr. McConnell said Mr. Liu’s legal writings “reveal 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.”
Democrats countered that Mr. Liu is among the brightest young legal minds in the country and that he has been unfairly demonized by the political right.
His supporters said he has received endorsements from several prominent conservatives off Capitol Hill, including Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel during President Clinton’s Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said he hasn’t been “this disappointed in a vote on a judicial nomination since Senate Republicans voted in lock step to reject Missouri Justice Ronnie White in 1999.”
“Professor Liu deserved better treatment than the Senate has allowed,” Mr. Leahy said. “All Americans suffer from this filibuster.”
Democrats also accused the Republican of hypocrisy. When Republicans controlled the Senate during the George W. Bush administration, they said, they routinely chastised Democrats for using the filibuster in an attempt to block judicial nominations.
“The partisan filibuster of Goodwin Liu’s nomination is another example of Republicans’ shifting standards on judicial nominations,” Mr. Leahy said.
Mr. Reid, during a floor speech before the vote, indirectly called out several Republican senators for their past support of letting judicial nominees receive straight up-or-down votes.
Republicans brushed aside the Democrats’ claim that they were flip-flopping on their stance on the filibuster, saying Mr. Liu represented an extraordinary and egregious case.
“Given his lack of temperament, his poor judgment and his activist view of the role of judges and the law, I’m left with no choice but to fight Professor Liu’s confirmation with every tool at my disposal,” said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
One Republican senator, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, voted “present” when roll was called on Mr. Liu’s nomination. Mr. Hatch had indicated that he opposed the nomination, but a spokeswoman for the senator said “he has always opposed the judicial filibuster.”
The Liu debate extended far beyond Capitol Hill, as liberal, conservative and ethnic-minority groups saw the nomination fight as a crucial test of the president’s ability to leave his mark on the nation’s judiciary.
Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice, said Thursday was “an extremely sad day for American justice.”
“The vote to sustain the filibuster relied almost exclusively on dishonest and distorted attacks on Professor Liu’s record and character,” she said.
But Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council Action group, praised the Senate’s action, saying it “represents a huge setback for the Obama administration’s effort to put a permanent, liberal stamp on the court.”
“If there were ever a time to draw the line on judicial activism, this was it,” Mr. Perkins said.
Also Thursday, the president announced that he was sending the Senate three more nominations for district court judges.
Mr. Obama tapped Judge Andrew L. Carter Jr. for a spot in the Southern District of New York, James Rodney Gilstrap for a judgeship in the Eastern District of Texas, and Judge Gina Marie Groh for the bench in the Northern District of West Virginia.