Goodwin Liu, 39, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, learned English in kindergarten and later became an honors graduate at Stanford and a Rhodes Scholar. He has taught at Berkeley since 2003 and was named associate dean of the law school in 2008.
He also worked as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and as a special assistant to the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.
Liu is one of two Asian Americans nominated by Obama to the federal appeals courts, which now have no active Asian American judges. The Ninth Circuit handles federal cases from California and eight other Western states and has three vacancies among its 29 authorized judgeships.
"Goodwin Liu is an outstanding teacher, a brilliant scholar and an exceptional public servant," said the law school's dean, Christopher Edley.
The nomination also won praise from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and from Tom Campbell, a UC Berkeley business professor and former congressman who is seeking the Republican nomination to run against Boxer.
Campbell said Liu would bring "scholarly distinction and a strong reputation for integrity, fair-mindedness and collegiality to the Ninth Circuit."
But Senate confirmation may not be routine. Some of Liu's positions could draw conservative opposition, which has held up other judicial nominees.
Liu testified in January 2006 against President George W. Bush's nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, saying Alito's judicial opinions were well-reasoned but indicated a tilt in favor of prosecutors and the government. He did not testify against Chief Justice John Roberts but told a reporter before the 2005 confirmation hearing that he thought Roberts would move the court to the right.