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Leading conservative judge quits for Boeing job

Luttig was mentioned as possible Supreme Court nominee

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

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The Boeing Company
J. Michael Luttig

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A conservative federal judge who was a finalist for two recent Supreme Court vacancies has resigned his post to become the top lawyer at aircraft maker Boeing Corp.

Judge J. Michael Luttig has been on the U.S Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, Virginia, for 15 years, and told CNN financial considerations played a major role in his decision.

"I have a family," he said. "This came out of the blue, I wasn't looking to leave the bench. But this represents a wonderful opportunity for me."

Luttig denied he is stepping down because of frustration that he did not get a Supreme Court nomination. "This decision has nothing whatsoever to do with the Supreme Court process," he said. "This is about my family and our future."

The judge has two young children and said living on a government salary in the pricey Washington area has been tough on him and other federal judges. "I would hope my resignation would focus some greater public attention on the issue of salaries."

He will become a senior vice president and general counsel at Boeing. Company chairman James McNerney, noting Luttig has been a leading high court candidate, said in a written statement, "He brings unique experience to Boeing, including significant experience in the defense and national security arenas."

Boeing's general counsel, Douglas Bain, is retiring in July.

Luttig, 51, lives and works in the Washington suburbs of northern Virginia, but will move to Chicago for his new job. His office said Luttig was not available to comment further.

He sent a letter to President Bush on Wednesday, informing him of the decision.

"It has been a particular privilege to serve on the court in the aftermath of the attack on the United States of September 11, 2001, during which time, in the context of the country's prosecution of those who committed the atrocities against America on that morning, the court has been asked to address some of the most complex and far-reaching legal questions of the day," wrote Luttig.

Responding to the announcement, White House Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino said, "The president regrets the loss of Judge Luttig's distinguished service on the federal judiciary -- he's been there for years -- but he respects his decision and wishes him and his family the best."

Court and legal sources say Luttig was a finalist in the past year for the Supreme Court seats that went to Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

He was personally interviewed by Bush, and was considered a favorite of many Republicans for his consistent, conservative views. But sources said that for political reasons, it was unlikely Bush, having already named Roberts and Alito, would consider another white male like Luttig for any future high court vacancy.

The White House would not confirm Luttig was on the short list of Supreme Court candidates.

He is considered the most conservative judge on the most conservative federal appeals court, and something of star in GOP legal circles, known for soft-spoken manner and concise, well-written court writings.

The Fourth Circuit has been the scene of many cases dealing with terrorism, and Luttig has been generally supportive of the Bush administration's aggressive efforts in that arena to detain and prosecute suspected "enemy combatants."

But in a surprise, Luttig last fall criticized the administration's handling of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen held for years in military custody, accused but not charged with trying to detonate a crude radioactive device. The judge sharply questioned the government's efforts to detain Padilla indefinitely.

Padilla has since been transferred to civilian custody and faces terror-related conspiracy charges.

Luttig was named to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, the youngest appeals court judge at the time. He had served in the Reagan and Bush Justice Departments, and as a government lawyer helped prepare David Souter and Clarence Thomas for their Senate confirmations to sit on the high court.

Luttig also was a law clerk to then-Appeals Court Judge Antonin Scalia, who now sits on the Supreme Court.

Scalia, Souter and Thomas recused themselves in a series of high court appeals by Napoleon Beazley, a Texas death row inmate, who was 17 years old in 1994 when he murdered Luttig's father in a botched carjacking outside the family's Tyler home.

Beazley was executed in May 2002, but the justices three years later outlawed capital punishment for those under 18 at the time of their crimes.

Separately, Luttig gained attention in March 2004, becoming the first federal appeals judge in the country to declare that inmates have a constitutional right to test leftover evidence that might prove their innocence.

That sparked a wave of legal claims by prisoners for DNA and other new forensic testing that may have been unavailable at the time of the crimes.

Many of Luttig's law clerks have since gone on to work in the same capacity for Scalia and Thomas, and to other top Justice Department positions.

Luttig told CNN his work as a judge was a "dream job" that he regretted leaving.

"I was involved in an exciting array of cases. Every hot-button issue imaginable came before me, and at the end of the day, I had to publish an opinion, to offer the final word, tough decisions that I had to live with. It's a scary thing to leave, but I'm grateful for the opportunity to try something new and exciting."

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