Federal Judge Abandons Bench for Boeing

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A federal judge who had been considered a likely nominee to the Supreme Court is quitting the bench to become general counsel Boeing. Judge Michael Luttig, a hero to many conservatives, has resigned from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.


A surprise announcement today that bridges both the legal and business communities. J. Michael Luttig, one of the nation's most prominent and conservative judges, is leaving the federal bench. He's going to become senior vice president and general counsel for the Boeing Company.

NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: Passed over twice this year for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, Luttig said in an interview today that he had not sought the Boeing job, but when it arose by serendipity, it was an opportunity he could not forego. In his resignation letter to the President, Luttig cited the financial needs posed by two children rapidly approaching college age. He pointed to Boeing as an "icon" with a central role in the nation's defense preparedness.

He said he's loved every moment of being a federal judge and said it was a particular privilege to have served in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when the federal appeals court he sits on in Richmond handled many of the critical legal issues stemming from the detention of so-called enemy combatants. In most of those cases, Luttig sided consistently with the Bush administration and its assertion of sweeping powers.

But he was sometimes reversed by the Supreme Court and in December when the administration did a U-turn in the case, apparently to avoid Supreme Court review, Luttig suggested that the administration had jeopardized its own credibility by improperly manipulating the system.

For Boeing, which has been plagued by influence peddling scandals involving government contracts, the Luttig hire is a coup that comes on top of an entire new management team. Richard Aboulafia is an aviation industry analyst.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: He's a legal heavy hitter and of course that sends the signals that they are very serious about oversight and corporate governance and ethics in general.

TOTENBERG: Bucknell University business professor Michael Johnson-Cramer agrees.

MICHAEL JOHNSON: This signals to the contracting committee that Boeing is serious about the business ethics issues that it's confronted that under its new leadership that they're moving ahead and really trying to clean house.

TOTENBERG: But Nobel Prize winner and former Stanford business school dean Michael Spence cautions that landing Luttig is not enough.

MICHAEL SPENCE: I think it will be viewed positively because a person of that stature is not likely to accept an appointment of that type without the authority to really work and accomplish a great deal and what people will watch and want to know is whether this is the beginning of that kind of serious commitment.

TOTENBERG: Luttig was recruited for the Boeing job by the company's lead board member, Kenneth Duberstein, who'd known Luttig when Duberstein served as White House Chief of Staff in the Reagan administration and Luttig served in the Justice Department. Boeing officials were impressed when Luttig insisted on paying his own way for meetings in Chicago, telling the Boeing brass if it didn't work out he didn't want to have accepted anything of value while a federal judge.

For all practical purposes, the 51-year-old Luttig has spent his entire life in public service, first in the Reagan and Bush administrations and then for 15 years as a federal court judge.

A few years ago Luttig jokingly applied for a job with a Washington D.C. law firm after reading that lawyers straight out of law school were making as much as federal judges. John Roberts, then a senior partner in the firm and now Chief Justice, turned him down, informing him tongue in cheek that the position did not include life tenure or the wearing of black robes. For Luttig the robes are off now and his compensation will jump from $171,000 a year to an estimated million plus.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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