J. Michael Luttig, 51, has been a favorite in conservative legal circles for decades, going back to his clerkship for then-Judge Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1982-83.

Luttig, a graduate of Washington and Lee University and the University of Virginia Law School, also clerked for then-Chief Justice Warren E. Burger from 1983 to 1984. Luttig practiced law in the private sector from 1985 to 1989 and then served in a variety of Justice Department positions in President George H.W. Bush's administration. His duties included helping Justices Clarence Thomas and David H. Souter win Senate confirmation.

Bush appointed him in 1991 to the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, when Luttig was 37 years old. Ever since, he has been spoken of as a likely choice for the Supreme Court should a Republican president have a chance to name him. His many supporters on the right, including ex-law clerks sprinkled throughout the Bush administration, think now is Luttig's time.

This has sometimes led him to clash with other members of the 4th Circuit, including fellow conservative J. Harvie Wilkinson III, also thought of as a Supreme Court contender. In 2000, he dissented from a ruling by Wilkinson that upheld a Fish and Wildlife Service regulation limiting the killing of endangered wolves on private land. He also disagreed with Wilkinson in 2003, when he wrote a dissenting opinion that supported the Bush administration's position that it could designate and detain "enemy combatants" with little judicial scrutiny.

In 1998, he upheld Virginia's ban on the procedure known by opponents as a "partial birth" abortion -- but agreed to let it be struck down after the Supreme Court struck down a similar Nebraska law in 2000.

-- Charles Lane