Gavel and handcuffs

A Conversation with Justice Goodwin H. Liu of the California Supreme Court

Liu spoke about how judicial decisions affect citizens, the state’s system of direct democracy, and the importance of educating law students about state courts.


In February 2024, the Brennan Center for Justice, State Court Report, and the NYU Law Review hosted a symposium dedicated to state constitutional law. Several state supreme court justices who participated in the program sat down for brief interviews with State Court Report. This interview is part of a series of judicial interviews that will be published over the coming months.

Associate Justice Goodwin H. Liu was nominated to the California Supreme Court by Gov. Jerry Brown and joined the court in 2011. He was retained by California voters in 2014 and 2022. In his interview, Liu discussed the tangible ways state supreme court decisions affect citizens, the active direct democracy system in California, and the need for greater attention on state courts — including as part of legal education — no matter the political climate. 

Erin Geiger Smith: When you were younger, what was your dream legal career?

Goodwin H. Liu
Justice Goodwin H. Liu speaks at the Brennan Center and NYU Law Review’s symposium The Promise and Limits of State Constitutions on February 9, 2024.   Photo: ©Slezak: Courtesy of NYU Photo Bureau

Justice Goodwin H. Liu: When I was younger, I thought I was going to be a doctor. So I didn’t have a dream legal career. Most everything about my career has been a series of unplanned evolutions. Even becoming a lawyer was something unfamiliar because I didn’t know any lawyers. The first lawyer I was ever exposed to was my member of Congress. When I was in high school, I had the honor of serving as a page in the House of Representatives, and that was my first introduction to politics, law, and public affairs. That really opened my eyes. But still, all the way through college I was pre-med. Then a series of mentors said, “Well, it looks like what you’re really interested in are these important issues of social justice and civil rights.” That steered me gradually towards law.

During law school I thought I was going to go back to Capitol Hill or work at a think tank or something like that. I had no idea I was going to become a professor. But some of my professors took me under their wing, and said, “You can do this!” I became a professor at UC Berkeley, which I was happy to do for eight years. Then people started suggesting that I consider becoming a judge, and the rest is history.

So, I did not have a plan. I would say to students, it all looks very tidy when you look at someone’s resume backwards. But living it forwards, it’s a series of “luck meets opportunity meets preparation.” Just being open to the possibilities is really important. 

Geiger Smith: What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were a law student? 

Liu: When it comes to career considerations, be open-minded and don’t be afraid to follow your passions. The biggest hurdle we often face is not lack of opportunities. It’s worrying that you should be doing something else. Listen to your inner voice and follow that.

Also, it’s helpful not to be too convinced of your own views, especially when you’re in a learning process, as law students are. You come to law school, I hope, not to find confirmation of all the things you already believe, but to consider a broader range of viewpoints and perspectives and knowledge bases you perhaps did not have. There’s the trite saying that the older you get, the less you feel you know. As you get older, you realize a lot of things are a lot more complicated than they seemed when you were younger. I’d tell my younger self that having more humility would have been good.

Geiger Smith: What do you enjoy about being a judge in state court? 

Liu: For anyone who is a generalist, state court is a great place because state courts are courts of general jurisdiction. We hear everything unless some statute or constitutional provision has withdrawn the jurisdiction from us. It’s the exact opposite of the federal courts, which are courts of limited jurisdiction and lack jurisdiction unless affirmatively granted. That’s a realization that you quickly have when you become a state court judge.

You come across all the ways that law interacts with society, all the ways the law affects people’s lives — in family law, juvenile law, criminal law, consumer law, labor law. You feel that you are impacting people’s daily lives.

This is specific to my current role, but it’s also a great luxury to have discretionary review. That’s true of many high courts. I have the great fortune of sitting on a court that gets to pick its cases, and we may have a higher percentage of interesting cases as a result. 

Geiger Smith: What is something people might not know about the California Constitution? 

Liu: We have very active direct democracy in California. About 100 some-odd years ago, provisions for direct democracy were created due to anxiety throughout society about the capture of the instruments of government by moneyed interests. In the reform period of the early 1900s, the voters enacted constitutional provisions preserving the right to pass initiatives and referenda and to recall authorities. California has taken these provisions quite seriously. 

Geiger Smith: What are some of the opinions you participated in that are the most memorable to you? 

Liu: That’s a classic “pick among your children” kind of question. I’ll give one example, which happened early in my tenure and made a very memorable impression on me. Around my second year on the court, we had a criminal case. A man had been convicted of a murder and the facts were close. He was tried four times, convicted the fourth time. In the fourth trial, there were some dental experts who were called to testify as to the victim having some sort of lesion on her hand and this lesion was said to match the defendant’s teeth. This evidence was only introduced in the fourth trial and was accompanied by a big exhibit designed to show the fit between the victim’s lesion and the defendant’s teeth. You can see how this evidence might be quite impactful.

Some years later, the dental experts recanted their testimony because bite mark evidence is not scientifically validated. Numerous authorities have concluded that it’s one of the least reliable forms of forensic evidence. The question for the court was whether the withdrawal of the bite mark evidence constituted false evidence under California’s false evidence statute. In a 4–3 decision, the court said it didn’t. I dissented, saying it was false evidence.

What happened afterward is that the legislature rewrote the statute, specifically in response to this case. The legislature made it clear that the recantation of expert testimony can make the prior testimony a form of false evidence and is a pathway to habeas corpus relief. As a result of that legislation, this individual, named Bill Richards, refiled for habeas corpus relief and was granted that relief by a unanimous decision of our court. And he walked out of prison after serving 23 years.

That made an impression on me.

Geiger Smith: What are some challenges facing state courts?

Liu: We have been lucky in California to have strong leadership of the courts and fairly calm waters in terms of the credibility and the nonpartisan nature of the courts. We haven’t had the rancorous, big-money judicial elections that have happened in some states, and as judges, we are vigilant about the politicization of the law.

There’s a lot of focus on state courts right now. But too much of it is being refracted through the current political moment. The proper functioning of state courts and the emphasis on their role should not be in response to political moments. State courts should be a basic part of legal education. They are a big part of our legal system every day, not just when there has been some decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that is disliked by a certain side. One takeaway from this moment, then, is that the emphasis on state courts needs to be a durable thing that is consonant with the basic structural precepts of federalism and separation of powers. It shouldn’t be a momentary reaction to perceived excesses by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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