Reputed to be the most conservative judge on the most conservative federal appeals court, the Texas-born jurist also is a renowned legal craftsman. Some of his former law clerks have gone on to powerful positions in Republican politics and the Bush administration.
Now Luttig has resigned, not due to any scandal but because the judge has a conscience. There seems to be a revolt building among intellectual purists on the right; who's going to be left for George W. to alienate?
On Nov. 22, U.S. Circuit Judge J. Michael Luttig was at work in his chambers here when he received a telephone call telling him to switch on the television. There, he saw Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announce that the government would file charges against Jose Padilla in a federal court -- treating the accused terrorist like a normal criminal suspect.
The judge was stunned. Two months earlier, he had written a landmark opinion saying the government could hold Mr. Padilla without charge in a military brig. The decision validated President Bush's claim that he could set aside Mr. Padilla's constitutional rights in the name of national security. The judge assumed the government had a compelling reason to consider the suspect an extraordinary threat. Now Mr. Gonzales wanted the courts to forget the whole case.
It didn't take long for the judge's anger to burst out into the open. The next month he wrote that moves such as the attorney general's cast doubt on the Bush administration's "credibility before the courts." Judge Luttig tried to block Mr. Padilla's transfer to civilian custody from the brig. The administration's top litigator fired back that the judge "defies both law and logic."
The clash, which underscores the increasing skepticism among even some conservative jurists toward the Bush administration's sweeping theories of executive power, culminated yesterday in Judge Luttig's resignation. The 51-year-old judge stepped down from his lifetime seat on the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to start a new career in Chicago as general counsel for Boeing Co.
Wonder how the Bush administration will try to discredit Luttig? Probably something along the lines of "he's a disgruntled jurist upset that he wasn't picked for the Supreme Court."