Rigorous analysis has been a hallmark of Michael Luttig's legal career. As a student at the University of Virginia School of Law, he devised an independent study project to analyze the complete circuit court decisions of Warren Burger. It was a mammoth undertaking for a law student, and it produced enough material for a book, says Prof. E.A. Dick Howard, who taught Luttig in the late 1970s. "He approached the project with a dogged determination that still impresses me," he says. "Luttig's not really a policy person; he's a law person, and he's uncommonly focused on the law."
Luttig became the nation's youngest federal appellate judge at 37 when President George H.W. Bush appointed him to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Alexandria, Va., in 1991a reflection of his rapid ascent through the legal world. After graduating from Washington and Lee University in 1976, Luttig worked briefly in the Ford White House before taking a job as an aide at the Supreme Court. He attended U.Va. law school at the urging of Chief Justice Warren Burger and later served as a clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia, who was then sitting on the District of Columbia Appeals Court. Luttig served in a variety of positions at the Justice Department before being nominated to the bench. After his appointment but before taking his seat on the Fourth Circuit, Luttig, then assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, worked to help prepare Clarence Thomas and David Souter for their confirmation hearings.
As an appellate judge, Luttig has marked his tenure with meticulously drafted legal opinions and adherence to established law. "At the end of the day, other than conscience, it is only analytical rigor, and the accountability that such renders possible, that can restrain a judiciary that serves for life and is at the pleasure of no one," he wrote in a 2001 decision. In a 2000 case involving state employees' right to access to sexually explicit material on their office computers, Luttig took his fellow Fourth Circuit judge, J. Harvie Wilkinson III, to task in a withering point-by-point analysis of his colleague's concurring opinion. Wilkinson has also been mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee.
In 1994, Luttig's father, John, was shot and killed by a teenage carjacker in his Tyler, Texas, garage. His mother survived the attack by hiding under the car and playing dead. Napoleon Beazley, a 17-year-old drug dealer and high school football star, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Judge Luttig, who moved his office to Texas for the trial, aided prosecutors in the case, which became a cause celebre for death penalty opponents because of Beazley's age and the recanted testimony of witnesses.
When the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, three justicesDavid Souter, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scaliarecused themselves because of their connections to Luttig. The remaining justices were evenly divided on the case, and the execution proceeded. Since then, Luttig has declined several requests to recuse himself from death penalty cases, citing Chief Justice Earl Warren, whose father was killed by a burglar when he was a district attorney but who still heard capital cases.
Luttig is regarded as a staunch federalist in the mold of Justices Scalia and Thomas. Luttig recently concurred with the majority opinion that struck down part of the Violence Against Women Act that would have allowed women to sue their attackers for monetary damages. Congress, Luttig said, could not authorize suits against states through its power to regulate interstate commerce. The Supreme Court later affirmed his conclusions.