President Barack Obama on Wednesday tapped Goodwin Liu LAW ’98 for one of three vacancies on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, referring to Liu in a statement as a “first-rate legal mind.”

If confirmed, the 39-year-old Liu — who now serves as associate dean of University of California, Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law — would be the youngest judge on the Ninth Circuit Court and one of the youngest ever confirmed to the Court, as well as its only full-time Asian American judge. Yale classmates said Liu — an expert on constitutional law, education policy, civil rights and the Supreme Court — stood out intellectually at the Law School. And though experts said it is unlikely that Republican opposition will prevent Liu’s confirmation, the road ahead may still be rocky.

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”7763″ ]

Beginning in 2005, Liu garnered attention for his public opposition to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito LAW ’75. Prior to Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Liu co-authored an essay through the American Constitution Society about Alito’s support for the death penalty, in which Liu said Alito’s past decisions raised “serious concerns.”

“It is precisely in the most contentious cases that Judge Alito has shown an unbroken pattern of diluting norms of basic fairness,” Liu and his co-author wrote.

During Alito’s 2006 Senate confirmation hearings, Liu again spoke out against Alito.

Susan Gluss, media relations director at UC Berkeley, said Liu was not available for comment Wednesday.

Liu’s statements against Alito’s views raise concerns that Republicans may attempt to fight Liu’s nomination, said Bill Burck LAW ’98, who once served as editor in chief of the Yale Law Journal. But both Burck — a former White House deputy counsel who now works in private practice — and Paul Mandell LAW ’98, the president of a legal support firm, said they doubt the conflict will be serious enough to prevent Liu’s confirmation.

“I thought very, very highly of him,” Burck said of his experiences with Liu at the Law School. “I think, intellectually, he is more than capable of doing the job extremely well.”

Liu was born to Taiwanese immigrant parents in Augusta, Ga. As an undergraduate at Stanford, he was elected student body co-president, and at the Law School, he served as an editor of the Yale Law Journal. In between college and law school, Liu was a Rhodes scholar.

Given Liu’s talents, his classmates said, the nomination did not come as a surprise.

“Even in a class with a lot of outstanding thinkers, he certainly stood out,” Juli Ann Lund LAW ’98 said.

After graduating from Yale, Liu clerked for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and worked in private practice before joining the UC, Berkeley faculty in 2003.

Liu is the second Asian-American Obama has nominated to a federal appellate court. The first, Denny Chin, was appointed to fill the vacancy left by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79 in the Second Circuit Court. (Chin has yet to be confirmed.) Liu would also be the second youngest judge ever appointed to the Ninth Circuit Court after Alex Kozinski, who now serves as the court’s chief judge.

The Ninth Circuit Court is the largest of the federal appellate courts — which are just under the Supreme Court in the judicial hierarchy — reviewing more than 16,000 cases each year from the nine western states.