Michael Luttig helped cease Trump on Jan. 6. He desires to complete the job.



An earlier model of this text misidentified the writer of the bulk opinion in a 2000 case involving the Violence Towards Ladies Act. It was written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and joined by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The story has been corrected.

Late one evening within the spring of 1994, a 40-year-old federal decide was startled awake by loud pounding on the entrance door of his house in Vienna, Va.

The sound was so jarring, so insistent, so out of character for his quiet Washington suburb that it unnerved J. Michael Luttig, a product of Northeast Texas who had put down deep roots in Beltway energy circles.

Luttig informed his spouse, Elizabeth, to name the police. “Preserve the road open,” he added.

Baffled, anxious, aggravated, Luttig opened the door only a crack. There stood a stocky man with thick black eyebrows.

Antonin Scalia. Affiliate justice of america Supreme Court docket.

Scalia had pushed by the evening on the request of Luttig’s mom, who wished him to be the one to interrupt the information: Luttig’s 63-year-old father, John, had been killed in a carjacking outdoors his Tyler, Tex., house barely an hour earlier. And so the judicial legend confirmed as much as sit together with his former clerk as he positioned one grim telephone name after one other, Luttig recalled in a latest interview, sharing the story publicly for the primary time.

It needed to be Scalia on this most terrible evening of their lives. Bobbie Luttig, who was severely injured within the assault, knew how her son regarded as much as him. For a era of conservative regulation college students, Scalia was a paragon of a judicial philosophy centered on reverence for the unique textual content of the Structure. Luttig had clerked for him on the federal appeals courtroom in Washington and later held one of many posts Scalia had occupied on his personal path to the bench, within the Workplace of Authorized Counsel, an obscure however influential cadre of brainy attorneys who present authorized steerage to the president.

Theirs had advanced into one thing greater than a mentor-mentee relationship, greater than a friendship. They had been integral components of a motion, the keepers of the conservative banner in Washington’s clubby authorized circles, the place shiny, younger aspirants may very well be tapped by their elders and set on a path towards an important authorized jobs within the nation. Reared within the Ford and Reagan administrations, ascendant in George H.W. Bush’s, Luttig turned the protege and eulogist of 1 chief justice, Warren Burger; a groomsman for an additional, John Roberts. (In a latest interview, Luttig repeatedly turned to phrases like “one among my finest buddies in life” to explain among the most distinguished judges, attorneys, enterprise leaders and journalists in America.)

By the point Scalia stood in his doorway, the younger regulation college students had been wanting as much as Luttig, too. His obsessively exact written opinions for the U.S. Court docket of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond had marked Luttig as one of many main conservative intellectuals within the authorized system — essentially the most conservative decide on essentially the most conservative courtroom in America.

Greater than a quarter-century later, it was Luttig (pronounced LEW-tig) who would get a late-night name to return to assistance from his tribe: Mike Pence, in his closing days as vice chairman, would search out Luttig’s authorized recommendation on the evening of Jan. 4, 2021, as Donald Trump pressured him to assist overturn the outcomes of the 2020 election. However Pence and his allies would want extra from Luttig than his personal counsel.

They wanted his imprimatur.

What started as a late-night telephone name has changed into the search of a lifetime for Luttig, the head of a protracted and storied profession, highlighted final summer season by his stirring look earlier than the congressional panel investigating the Jan. 6 uprising on the U.S. Capitol and by the committee’s final report launched in late December, which mentions his title greater than 25 instances.

Key findings from the Jan. 6 committee’s final report

“Donald Trump and his supporters and allies are a transparent and current hazard to American democracy,” Luttig told the committee on live television.

Retired conservative Decide J. Michael Luttig testified on June 16 that President Trump and his allies pose a “clear and current hazard” to American democracy. (Video: Reuters)

However Luttig wasn’t simply condemning Trump and Trumpism. He was making an attempt to convey a nation to its senses.

“We People not agree on what is true or flawed, what’s to be valued and what’s not, what is suitable conduct and never, and what’s and isn’t tolerable discourse in civilized society,” he stated. “America is adrift.”

Months faraway from that star flip, Luttig’s worries have begun to ebb ever so barely. He now envisions a nation someday disentangled from Trump’s affect, whilst the previous president launches a brand new marketing campaign. It’s a future Luttig is making an attempt to form in court cases, in legislative chambers the place he’s helped craft election law changes and in professorial public appearances the place he explains in painstaking element how American democracy, although imperiled, can nonetheless be preserved.

Luttig can consider just one motive he would have been wrested out of quiet semiretirement for this mission.

It was, he’s concluded, nothing lower than “divine intervention.”

The books are all the time by his facet, wherever Michael Luttig sits right down to suppose. Large dictionaries, writing manuals, something that may inform his fixation with phrases, with the intricacies of their meanings and the methods they are often deployed. Even by the requirements of the authorized occupation, he can seem to be a strolling, speaking thesaurus, with an affection for phrases like “charlatanic,” “obeisantly” and “annihilative.”

At 68, Luttig is ruddy-faced and thickset in a means that is likely to be anticipated from a person who has a house in Vail however doesn’t ski. In dialog, he can seem pained as he searches for an acceptable phrase. He’ll press his fingers in opposition to his brow, staring on the floor, beginning and stopping, self-narrating (“Half One … Half Two …”) in his faintly nasal Texas twang, enhancing himself in actual time — a waterfall of phrases and concepts, however in super-slow-mo. One may as properly get snug as a result of it’s going to take awhile. It’s additionally unlikely to be boring.

Throughout his 15 years on the federal bench, from 1991 to 2006, he turned legendary for his voluminous and intricately detailed writing, each periodically piquant and staunchly conservative. As soon as, in a case that outraged women’s groups, he wrote a 214-page opinion declaring {that a} portion of the Violence Towards Ladies Act permitting rape victims to sue their attackers for violating their civil rights was unconstitutional. The regulation, he concluded, couldn’t be “reconciled with the rules of restricted federal authorities upon which this nation is based.” (The Supreme Court docket affirmed his ruling, with an opinion written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and joined by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.)

“He was on the market articulating a set of authorized rules that had been transferring the regulation in a conservative course,” stated Noel Francisco, who clerked for Luttig and would later function solicitor general in the Trump administration. “A pointy concentrate on guidelines in relation to separation of powers, a wholesome skepticism of the executive state, upholding legal guidelines that replicate extra culturally conservative viewpoints. It was very a lot of a pro-law-and-order method to the regulation, very a lot in favor of holding criminals accountable for his or her conduct.”

He was simply 37 years outdated when the primary president Bush tapped him for the bench, the youngest federal appeals decide within the nation, however already a veteran of the political world. His specialty: screening and prepping the Supreme Court docket nominees of Republican presidents. His house served because the “safe-house” lodging for future justice David Souter, the evening earlier than Bush interviewed him for the job in 1990. After Clarence Thomas’s 1991 nomination was imperiled by sexual harassment allegations, Luttig was urgently summoned from a Hawaii trip to assist. His involvement was criticized by some authorized ethicists as a result of Luttig, although not but sworn in, had already been confirmed as a decide.

Years earlier, Luttig had even inspired his first mentor, Chief Justice Burger, to retire whereas Reagan was nonetheless in workplace to switch him with a like-minded jurist; Luttig says he hosted a dinner during which Burger might bond with Fred Fielding, the powerhouse White Home counsel who would steer that choice.

On the appeals courtroom, Luttig was considered such a reliable vote on abortion that attorneys arguing for restrictive measures — parental notification guidelines, “partial-birth” abortion bans — would angle to steer their circumstances to him. He strongly supported the second Bush White Home’s controversial post-9/11 coverage of declaring terrorism suspects “enemy combatants” in order that they may very well be held by the navy with out expenses. He was additionally seen as a surefire supporter of capital-punishment sentences. But some well-informed members of the authorized group had no thought about his father’s homicide. When Francisco interviewed for his 1996 clerkship with Luttig, that they had a protracted, “very earnest and really heartfelt dialog” about their opposing takes on the demise penalty — however Luttig by no means talked about his father.

Luttig at the moment was urging the courts to uphold the demise penalty for his father’s killer, Napoleon Beazley. In an interview with The Publish, Luttig says he would have been open to prosecutors looking for a lesser sentence if the killer’s household had apologized on behalf of their son, who was 17 on the time of the homicide, and if he hadn’t perceived a “coldness” from them. Beazley’s case reached the Supreme Court docket, the place absolutely one-third of the courtroom — Scalia, Thomas and Souter — recused themselves due to their shut ties to Luttig; he was executed by deadly injection in 2002.

For all his perceived reliability as a conservative bulwark, Luttig might befuddle the political proper. He dominated that Title IX protected a feminine place-kicker on an all-male soccer staff from gender discrimination. He upheld a Black defendant’s proper to exclude a White juror who had displayed the Accomplice flag. And in 2000 he declared that the constitutional proper to abortion established with Roe v. Wade had achieved the standing of “super-stare decisis” — a time period of his coining — as a result of the Supreme Court docket stated it had repeatedly upheld the case and that it was irrefutably embedded within the regulation on the time.

He famously saved his clerks — the “Luttigators” — working for hours as he fastidiously pored over every sentence of the draft opinions they helped him write. Luttig’s desk had a pc monitor and a keyboard so he might tweak and re-tweak; the clerks sat at a spherical mahogany desk with laptop screens however no keyboards. Often he would invite them to his home on weekends, ostensibly to observe soccer, solely to flip the channel to C-SPAN.

In the event that they devoted themselves to him for a yr, he would inform them, “I’ll commit myself to you for the remainder of your profession.”

Virtually all of his clerks — greater than 40 over time — went onto clerkships on the Supreme Court docket.

“That was eye-popping to everybody,” says fellow former federal decide, Thomas Griffith, a classmate of Luttig’s on the College of Virginia regulation faculty. “For Mike, that was a badge of honor.”

The one individual Luttig couldn’t get a job on the Supreme Court docket was J. Michael Luttig. He was lengthy thought-about by many to be virtually a shoo-in however was handed over in 2005 in favor of Roberts and Samuel Alito. He left the federal bench the next yr for a profitable however low-profile job as normal counsel at Boeing, noting the looming price of his youngsters’s faculty tuition.

And so it was that one of the celebrated authorized minds of his era didn’t ascend to the best courtroom within the land — releasing him to play one other, maybe extra consequential function.

Simply ask Neal Katyal, a former deputy solicitor normal within the Obama administration who discovered himself crossing the aisle to work with Luttig in an ongoing authorized battle in opposition to a principle from the Trumpian fringe of the GOP that will basically let state legislatures determine nationwide elections.

“There’s argument,” says Katyal, who teared up twice throughout an interview, “that Decide Luttig, by not being on the Supreme Court docket, did extra for our democracy than most any sitting Supreme Court docket justice or previous one.”

On the evening of Jan. 4, 2021, Luttig was consuming dinner together with his spouse at their house in Vail when the telephone rang. It was Richard Cullen, a longtime pal and former U.S. lawyer in Virginia who was then serving as an out of doors lawyer for Pence.

Cullen was determined for intel. An lawyer he’d by no means heard of however who had represented Trump in lawsuits difficult the presidential election outcomes was going round saying Pence had the authority to dam certification of the 2020 election outcomes. Cullen discovered that it was a person named John Eastman and that in a earlier life he had clerked for Luttig.

Luttig, puzzled, informed Cullen that Eastman is “sensible.”

“You don’t know why I’m calling, do you?” Cullen stated.

As soon as Cullen defined what Eastman was as much as, Luttig informed Cullen to advise Pence he merely couldn’t block the certification. When Luttig hung up, his spouse turned to him: “Oh my God, it’s important to cease this.”

Luttig was at a loss. He stated he didn’t suppose there was something he might do past providing his authorized opinion. Retired from Boeing, he’d been out of the general public eye for years, avoiding partisan politics.

However Cullen known as once more within the morning, and once more pushed Luttig to say one thing publicly earlier than Pence sat down for a deliberate lunch with Trump. They lastly agreed that Luttig would submit one thing on Twitter.

The issue: This man of many, many phrases couldn’t think about confining his remarks to 280 characters — and he had no thought easy methods to string a number of tweets right into a Twitter thread. His very first tweet, barely two months earlier, had taken him 5 hours to compose; he ended up posting a photograph of the prolonged assertion he’d printed out. However feeling the “gravity of this second,” as he put it, Luttig known as his son, who despatched him a tutorial on easy methods to assemble a thread.

His 7-tweet thread, posted early on Jan. 5, supplied Pence each authorized and political cowl. Luttig defined — as if talking to first-year civics college students — that, no, the vice chairman couldn’t simply change the vote whole. And, no, refusing to take action didn’t imply he was disloyal to the president.

Luttig’s shut pal William P. Barr had been a Trump-enabling lawyer normal till quitting a month earlier, fed up by the president’s false election claims. Luttigators had been sprinkled all through the administration, together with Well being and Human Companies Secretary Alex Azar; Courtney Elwood, the final counsel of the CIA; and Kate Comerford Todd, who was deputy White Home counsel. One other led the Trump-acolyte wing of the Republican Social gathering: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

Luttig’s feedback resonated with a sure section of Republicans as a result of he had assiduously prevented taking public political stances over time. He was nonetheless Decide Luttig — emphasis on decide.

“He couldn’t be dismissed as a By no means-Trumper,” says Invoice Kristol, the distinguished conservative commentator. “His emergence was a massive deal.”

Ignoring the Jan. 6 hearings? Michael Luttig explains why you shouldn’t.

Luttig’s highlight look, a yr and a half later, earlier than the congressional committee investigating Trump’s function within the Jan. 6, 2021, revolt, was a fair greater deal — so extremely anticipated that the textual content of his remarks was thought-about a information scoop. He’d refused to offer an advance copy to the committee as a result of he feared it could be leaked. He wished to order the choice to make tweaks as much as the final minute and didn’t desire a model on the market that was even one syllable totally different from the remarks he delivered.

Conservative jurist J. Michael Luttig stated on June 16 had Vice President Mike Pence declared Donald Trump president it could’ve plunged America right into a “disaster.” (Video: The Washington Publish, Photograph: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Publish)

As a substitute he leaked it himself to CNN, for launch moments earlier than his look. (Earlier that yr he’d leaked to CNN his endorsement of Biden’s Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, whom he differed from on judicial interpretations however thought would profit the solidly conservative courtroom by including much-needed range as a result of she is an African American girl.)

In his testimony, Luttig spoke soooooo slowly that social media lit up with hypothesis that he was recovering from a stroke, a baseless principle amplified by the crimson complexion of his face that day. He was merely sunburned, it turned out — and deliberately spoke so intentionally as a result of he wished People to soak up e-v-e-r-y single phrase that he spent almost 18 months writing and rewriting at his houses in Chicago, Vail and coastal South Carolina.

“I’ve by no means seen him as concurrently centered and at peace,” Cullen says. “It’s virtually a spiritual expertise for him.”

When Luttig was a younger, lowly staffer within the Ford White Home, he labored on a guide meant to bolster the president’s ill-fated 1976 marketing campaign.

A part of that effort concerned explaining Ford’s rationale for pardoning predecessor Richard M. Nixon for his involvement within the Watergate scandal. Luttig has concluded Ford made the suitable determination, within the curiosity of not prolonging the nationwide upheaval. He has been pondering quite a bit about these days, now that the Justice Department is faced with deciding whether to indict Trump for his function within the Jan. 6 revolt and his hoarding of labeled paperwork after leaving workplace.

“What Nixon did was simply an bizarre crime,” Luttig says. “What Trump has accomplished is sort of arguably the worst crime in opposition to america {that a} president might commit.”

Luttig sees “ample proof” of felony exercise and believes Trump might be indicted. However he has been even handed about not calling for an indictment. As a substitute, in his professorial method, he’s been laying out the components that he believes needs to be thought-about by Lawyer Normal Merrick Garland (one more shut acquaintance, in fact, from their time as federal judges).

When he posts them on social media, he’s come to anticipate that his pal, famend liberal authorized scholar Laurence Tribe, will retweet or reply with precisely what Luttig has been cautious to not say — that Trump needs to be indicted. The ideological opposites struck up a correspondence, bonded by their mutual resolve that Trump is a menace to democracy, Tribe says. (They’re additionally working collectively on a multibillion-dollar tax case for Coca-Cola, the place Luttig is a particular adviser to the board.)

As Luttig sees it, the choice about indicting Trump must also keep in mind whether or not it could “break up the nation,” given the understanding that Trump would put up a years-long combat in opposition to any expenses and the worldwide “spectacle” that will ensue.

Even when an indictment by no means materializes, Luttig now believes the nation is able to relegate Trump and Trumpism to irrelevancy. The previous president’s political future was dealt triple blows, Luttig says, by his latest assertion that components of the Constitution should be “terminated” to return him to workplace, the criminal referrals by the Jan. 6 committee and the failure of his favored candidates in the 2022 midterm elections. He calls it “the start of the top of Donald Trump.”

Nonetheless, he says, the mission of vanquishing Trump — and thus, in Luttig’s thoughts, saving American democracy — shouldn’t be totally full. “Donald Trump has confirmed that the one factor that may cease him is the regulation,” he says.

But when there’s something J. Michael Luttig locations religion in, it’s the regulation.


An earlier model of this text misstated the courtroom the place J. Michael Luttig clerked for Antonin Scalia.

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