By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 11, 2006
J. Michael Luttig, the federal appeals court judge who was on President Bush's short list for the Supreme Court but recently clashed with the administration over a terrorism case, resigned from the bench yesterday to become senior vice president and general counsel at the Boeing Co.
In a letter to Bush, Luttig said he was leaving the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit because of the "sheer serendipity" of the chance to work for the nation's largest aerospace company. He said Boeing approached him several weeks ago and that he and his wife decided "that this is a singular opportunity that we cannot forgo."
"It is the greatest honor of my life to have served as a federal judge for the past 15 years," Luttig wrote. "For as long as I can remember, it was my dream to serve on the United States Court of Appeals, and the experience has far exceeded even all that I have imagined."
The announcement stunned conservatives who agreed with Luttig's judicial philosophy and others because it is rare for a federal judge to leave a lifetime appointment to the bench. "Much more often, people are moving in the other direction, from private industry or private practice or government jobs to the judiciary," said John G. Douglass, a law professor at the University of Richmond and an expert on the 4th Circuit.
At Chicago-based Boeing, Luttig, 51, who lives in Vienna, will face a number of legal issues. Boeing is trying to settle Justice Department investigations into the illegal hiring of an Air Force official and its use of a rival's proprietary documents to win a rocket launch contract. The hiring probe resulted in guilty pleas in 2004 by Boeing's former chief financial officer, Michael M. Sears, and Darleen A. Druyun, a former Air Force procurement official who became vice president in charge of Boeing's missile defense systems.
Those pleas were entered in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, but Druyun and Sears waived their rights to appeal to the Richmond-based 4th Circuit. A database search did not reveal any Boeing cases ruled on by Luttig, and people familiar with the court could not recall any. When he was approached by Boeing, Luttig said in an interview yesterday, he recused himself from any Boeing cases that might arise.
Luttig, who worked for the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and is considered a leading judicial conservative, was closely examined for the two Supreme Court vacancies that arose last year, lawyers familiar with the administration's deliberations have said. But those slots went to John G. Roberts Jr., now the chief justice, and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
Then, in December, Luttig issued a strongly worded opinion that rebuked the administration's actions in the case of "enemy combatant" Jose Padilla. Though Luttig had earlier written an opinion that strongly backed the president's authority to hold Padilla without charges or trial, he then refused to authorize Padilla's transfer to Justice Department custody to face criminal charges of terrorism.
Luttig wrote that the administration's actions left "the impression that Padilla may have been held for these years, even if justifiably, by mistake." In a sharply worded reply brief, the Justice Department said Luttig's ruling had mischaracterized the events of Padilla's incarceration and gone so far as to "usurp" Bush's authority as commander-in-chief.
Friends of Luttig said yesterday that the financial lure of the Boeing job and the greater ability to pay for his children's college education -- Luttig has a 14-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son -- were key to his resignation. Luttig's judicial salary was $171,800. Boeing would not reveal his compensation, but Frank H. Menaker Jr., who stepped down last year as general counsel at Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., earned $760,000 with an $893,500 bonus.
But the friends added that Luttig's disappointment over the nominations of Roberts and Scalia, combined with uncertainty over when another Supreme Court vacancy would occur, also played a role.
In the interview, Luttig said that "no one can or should plan their life around a potential Supreme Court vacancy. This decision had nothing whatsoever to do with the Supreme Court process. It was about my family and my son and daughter."
Luttig's resignation leaves the 4th Circuit, which hears cases from Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, three short of its full complement of 15 judges. It was unclear whom Bush might nominate to replace him. Legal experts said his departure is unlikely to alter the balance of the court, which has backed the administration on key national security cases and is considered the nation's most conservative appellate court.
Staff writer Renae Merle and researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.