Appeals court judge a rising star among conservatives
Despite father's death, Luttig says he is objective about death penalty
By Manuel Perez-Rivas
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger was one of the giants of the American judiciary in the 20th century. When he died in 1995, the top echelons of the American judicial system convened at his funeral. He was eulogized by two sitting justices of the high court -- Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Burger also was remembered by a third, lesser-known judge, who delivered a moving eulogy: J. Michael Luttig was a friend and former law clerk of Burger's, and someone who many believe could one day be a Supreme Court justice himself.
In recent weeks, Luttig has emerged on the national scene, but not because of a case he has presided over as a judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Rather, it is because of a case in which he has a more personal role: He is the son of John Luttig, the Texas man who was shot to death by Napoleon Beazley during a carjacking in 1994. When the case reached the Supreme Court, Luttig's ties to the nation's highest bench caused three of the sitting justices to recuse themselves.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and David Souter recused themselves from a petition to review Beazley's case because of their ties to Luttig. That led to an unusual 3-3 Supreme Court tie, which was not enough to stay his execution.
The high court still must decide whether to take action on the merits of the petition -- whether or not Beazley should be spared because he was 17 at the time of the crime. The execution, however, was later put on hold by a Texas appeals court.
Luttig 'not tortured by doubt'
Although Luttig's has not been a common household name in the United States, he has long been a prominent player in national legal circles and a rising star among conservatives during his decade-long tenure on the appeals court.
Luttig also is considered by many legal experts as someone likely to be on President George W. Bush's list of potential Supreme Court nominees. Over the years, he has earned a reputation as a smart and bold conservative, a strong advocate of federalism, and a jurist assured of his convictions.
"He is a man who is not tortured by doubt over the correctness of his judicial philosophy," said Bruce Fein, a lawyer and constitutional scholar who was a deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration.
Luttig, 47, was born in Tyler, Texas. He earned a law degree from the University of Virginia and lives in Northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C.
Former President George H.W. Bush nominated Luttig for the appeals court judgeship in 1991. Luttig had clerked for Burger in the mid-1980s, and before that, worked as a law clerk to Scalia when Scalia was an appeals judge in the District of Columbia.
Luttig then went on to work for the Justice Department during the first Bush administration, where he provided counsel during the Supreme Court nomination process for both Thomas and Souter.
"His reputation is one of an extremely smart, hard-line conservative," said Heather Gerken, an assistant professor at Harvard Law School, who also was a Supreme Court clerk for Souter. "Even those on the left, who disagree with his politics, really agree that he is very, very smart."
Gerken said Luttig is recognized as one of the nation's most prominent "feeder" judges, whose clerks go on to be law clerks at the Supreme Court. She noted that they are reputed to be among the most conservative clerks in the high court.
Longtime supporter of capital punishment
It has been during his time on the 4th Circuit bench that Luttig has developed his reputation, staking out some of the most controversial opinions from that bench in recent years.
Two years ago, he wrote an opinion striking down the Violence Against Women Act on the grounds that Congress had overstepped its authority in establishing the legislation. In 1998, he reversed a lower court ruling and upheld a Virginia ban on partial birth abortion. A year earlier he issued a ruling allowing the state to require parental notification before a teen-ager could obtain an abortion.
Luttig was a supporter of capital punishment long before Beazley and two accomplices in the carjacking -- brothers Donald and Cedric Coleman -- killed his father and wounded his mother in the driveway of their home in Texas.
In recent years, defense attorneys have at times asked him to recuse himself from capital cases because of the personal tragedy he suffered. But Luttig has said he can separate his personal emotions from his judicial responsibilities.
The judge declined a request for an interview for this story, saying he would not comment while Beazley's case is pending.
But he has made his feelings known in the past. He testified at Beazley's trial, where he described his family's horror and anguish in the aftermath of the murder, and of his love and admiration for his slain father. "My dad was my hero. He still is my hero," he said. "I worshiped the ground he walked on. I still do."
More recently, Luttig gave an interview to his hometown newspaper, The Tyler, Texas, Morning Telegraph, in which he said he and his family did not push for the death penalty in the case. His father's death was so devastating, he said, that he had no room left to feel anger toward Beazley.
"Things being as they are, I believe Beazley received the fairest trial possible, in part because I was there," he said.
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