By Norman Y. Mineta
WASHINGTON (May 18, 2011) – May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the United States. From laborers who were vital to the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s, to leaders such as Stephen Ho (inventor of the AIDS vaccine), Michelle Kwan (world champion figure skater), and retired U.S. Army Four Star General Eric Shinseki (current Sec. of the Dept. of Veterans Affairs), Asian Pacific Americans have contributed to almost all aspects of American life.
But despite their achievements in the social, legal, and economic sphere of American life, Asian Pacific Americans are rarely chosen for the federal judiciary. Among the approximately 875 federal judges with lifetime tenure in the U.S., only 14 are Asian Pacific American. The percentage is even lower among active federal appellate court judges, where only one out of 175 is Asian Pacific American. In U.S. history, there have been only five Asian Pacific American federal appellate court judges.
Shockingly, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit – the federal appellate court covering the West Coast and Hawaii, and where almost 40 percent of all Asian Pacific Americans in the U.S. reside – has no Asian Pacific Americans. Indeed, the Ninth Circuit has not had an active Asian Pacific American federal appellate judge since 2004, even though that court traditionally has had at least one on the bench during the prior thirty years.
That oversight can and should change soon, and the Senate has the opportunity to do that. Professor Goodwin Liu, of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, has been nominated by President Obama to serve on the Ninth Circuit Court. Professor Liu was first nominated over a year ago on February 24, 2010.
He has waited longer for a full Senate vote than any appellate court nominee during the Obama administration. During that time, he has provided approximately five hours of testimony and submitted over a thousand pages of documents. He has been scrutinized more than any Obama nominee except for the Supreme Court Justices.
Liu is now well overdue for a confirmation vote by the full Senate. As a former Cabinet member for both a Republican and a Democrat, I understand and respect the role that the Senate plays in evaluating Presidential nominations.
Nevertheless, that evaluation must at some point result in a decision. The Senate should not hide behind secret holds, cloture votes, and filibuster threats to prevent an up or down vote. When that vote is called, senators should vote in favor of this exceptionally qualified, measured, and inspirational second-generation Asian Pacific American nominee.
The opposition to Professor Liu has two main themes. First, some have argued that he is unqualified for the job based on his relative youth and lack of experience. To the contrary: Professor Liu graduated from Stanford University, was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, and received his law degree from Yale University. He had prestigious law clerkships with a D.C. Circuit judge and a Supreme Court Justice.
The ABA gave Professor Liu its highest ranking of “Unanimously Well-Qualified.” Fox News anchor and legal analyst Megyn Kelly said that “his qualifications are unassailable,” and the New York Times agreed that he is “an exceptional nominee.” The lack of a lifetime of courtroom experience has not prevented other nominees from serving successfully as federal appellate court judges. Several current federal appellate court judges have had similar credentials – including Republican nominees Fourth Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson and Federal Circuit Judge Kimberly Moore.
Second, critics have attacked Professor Liu based on ideological grounds, charging that he is a “radical” or “extremist” liberal. Any fair reading of Liu’s writings and speeches illustrates that he is a mainstream nominee who is extremely intelligent, open-minded about different opinions and ideas, and very thorough in his scholarship. The list of people supporting Professor Liu further contradicts the notion that he would bring a political agenda to the bench. The list includes prominent conservatives such as former federal appellate court judge and Whitewater prosecutor Ken Starr, former Republican Congressman Tom Campbell, Ford Administration Transportation Secretary William T. Coleman, Jr., and school choice advocate Clint Bolick. All of these individuals believe that Professor Liu would make an excellent judge.
In short, Professor Liu is an extremely well-qualified nominee who has the intellectual capacity, experience, temperament and integrity to be an excellent jurist. As a second-generation American, Professor Liu has lived the American dream. But if Liu is not confirmed, Asian Pacific Americans may be left with the impression that there continues to be a glass ceiling blocking Asian Pacific Americans from top level leadership positions regardless of their qualifications.
As the first Asian Pacific American member of a president’s Cabinet, I know how meaningful it is to break barriers and inspire others. Especially during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the Senate should use this opportunity to recognize the achievements of Asian Pacific Americans and inspire Asian Pacific Americans to continue to make America even stronger.
Norman Y. Mineta is the Founder of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies. He was the former U.S. Secretary of Transportation for President George W. Bush, and the former U.S. Secretary of Commerce for President William J. Clinton. Mineta is the author of the original congressional resolution proclaiming the first ten days of May as Asian-Pacific Heritage Week, a tribute that was extended to one month by President George H.W. Bush.