It was a hall of mirrors of hypocrisy at Thursday's Senate vote on the nomination of Goodwin Liu to be a judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. At least 60 senators had to agree to allow the Senate to give Liu a straight up-or-down vote. Didn't happen. Liu, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, is the first judicial nominee to be filibustered since 2005.
First, there are the most obvious failures of intellectual consistency: Republicans who once claimed that filibustering judicial nominees is "offensive to our nation's constitutional design" (Sen. John Cornyn, 2004) and flat-out "unconstitutional" (Sen. Lindsey Graham, 2005) voted against Liu. Even the Republican who said he "will vote to support a vote, up or down, on every nominee—understanding that, were I in the minority party and the issues reversed, I would take exactly the same position because this document, our Constitution, does not equivocate"—even that guy (Sen. Johnny Isakson, 2005) voted against Liu.
You can blame Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for forcing the Liu issue, or the White House for abandoning it. But nothing changes the fact that the judicial confirmation détente of 2005, when the so-called "Gang of 14" pledged that honorably fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities meant that "nominees should only be filibustered under extraordinary circumstances," is over. The era in which the self-styled grownups on both sides agree that the judicial vacancy rate represents a national crisis, and that the Senate's responsibility to advise and consent does not extend to delaying and distorting, is over, too.
It's not just a return to business as usual for the judicial confirmation process. It's the return of the race to the bottom. Here's a good idea: Let's fight about who started it for a while. Neither side is blameless for the degeneration of this enterprise into a stew of insults and umbrage. But Republicans must take all the responsibility for their decision that Liu was the man over whom they should go to war.
Goodwin Liu is many, many things (disclosure: I have met him several times), but an "extraordinary circumstance" he is not. Liu is a Yale and Stanford graduate and associate dean of one of the many Top 10 law schools in the country. He received the highest possible rating from the American Bar Association and endorsements from legal thinkers from across the political spectrum, including Kenneth Starr and Clint Bolick.
But Senate Republicans were set on making an example of Liu, who was nominated well over a year ago. As Doug Kendall of the Constitutional Accountability Center explained today, the Republicans who opposed Liu's nomination "were completely ignoring what Goodwin Liu testified to under oath," instead relying on "a distorted interpretation of things he said years ago in his scholarship." It was as if the sworn testimony had never even happened. Liu testified not once but twice before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he was unfailingly temperate, scholarly, and sober. Yet from the start Republicans depicted him as the Tim Riggins of the legal academy—all beer-soaked hair and bloody knuckles—and never varied that picture in the face of the evidence. The caricature of Liu as careless and reckless and "wacky" never dimmed, even while it never fit. A few lines plucked from a few articles, repeated on an infinite loop, obscured one of the most thoughtful and serious legal minds of a generation.