May 10, 2006
Luttig Chooses Boeing
Posted by Gordon Smith

What to make of this story: Michael Luttig has resigned from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to become Boeing's General Counsel. The story doesn't say why, but let's brainstorm.

Hmm. Well, there's money.

And then there's ... ? Well, he may have other reasons. I will be interested to find out.

Is he essentially dropping his name from consideration for the next Supreme Court opening? Not that nomineess have to be judges, but is this a signal that he is not interested in the judicial life?

UPDATE: Ann thinks it's about money. She links to Luttig's "gushing" (about Boeing) resignation letter.

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Comments (12)

1. Posted by Joe Leahy on May 10, 2006 @ 13:03 | Permalink

Of course it's about money! The Post thinks so too.

In his letter, Luttig seems just a bit too eager to explain why he's choosing Boeing; I think he doth explain too much.

Luttig has shown his concern about his low salary before: Remember his letter to apply for a first-year associate position at Hogan & Hartson a few years back?

Yet, I'm most interested whether he is throwing in the towel on ever obtaining a Supreme Court seat. Does he think he's too old, at age 51? Or does he think the Democrats will win in 2008?

Perhaps not. Perhaps he is just biding his time. Perhaps he sees himself coming "out of retirement" if asked by President McCain -- much like Cheney after Halliburton? And he's just biding his time, in case McCain (or whomever the next Republican president is) prefers a Westerner. Perhaps he even thinks that some big-business experience will help his resume to be the next (or more likely, the next after the next) Supreme Court justice?

I clerked on his court, but I have no insight at all on this. Any thoughts?

2. Posted by Scott Moss on May 10, 2006 @ 13:43 | Permalink

I'm forgotten about, but now remember, his old salary whining. I call it "whining" because it's oddly economics-illiterate, to borrow a phrase from Kate. At $150-ish, hordes of talented people line up for miles for federal appellate judgeships. The equilibrium of labor supply and labor demand may well be _lower_ than the current salary for federal appellate judges....

3. Posted by anon on May 10, 2006 @ 17:43 | Permalink

It's not about money. The Luttig family is plenty rich. He might kvetch about judicial salaries, but he would have been fine financially if he had never worked a day in his life.

It must be about the challenge. Having spent fifteen years on the CA4, why spend 30 or 40 more slowly growing old, doing the same old same old, if the opportunity to go the Supremes has passed you by? The next spot is unlikely to go to a white male, and at his current popularity levels Bush is unlikely to be able to confirm anyone remotely controversial for any opening that occurs after about January 2007. And, after 2008, no one knows when Republicans will next control the White House. At 60, Judge Wilkinson was considered too old by many for the last too openings; Luttig could well be that old or older before the next slot filled by a Republican President comes up.

Folks that say he could go inhouse at any time don't really know what they are talking about. He could go to a law firm at any time, and he could get some general counsel job at any time, but jobs like the Boeing job are few. While he has been a distinguished judge, one side effect of his early appointment to the bench is that his legal experience outside the courts is skimpy at best. Other companies with the fat in the fire might prefer to choose a general counsel who has more experience as a practicing lawyer, rather than trusting a judge to pick up the new skills he will need in the midst of the battle.

Congrats to him in his new job. Here's hoping he enjoys it and succeeds at it.

4. Posted by Robert Schwartz on May 10, 2006 @ 18:40 | Permalink

There will always be ankle bitters.

The truth is that our Federal Judges are woefully underpaid. I know a district court judge who has to moonlight in order to be able to afford to live in the urban district where his appointment is.

Furthermore, although I know nothing about Judge Luttig's personal situation, I can understand how a man in entering his 50s with children to educate and elderly parents to take care of might need more money than is paid to Federal Judges.

I think we need the best minds for our judiciary, but we need to pay them more than rookies just out of school make.

5. Posted by Scott Moss on May 10, 2006 @ 20:21 | Permalink

Robert, see my comment -- in what sense are they "underpaid" if the existing salary draws a glut of talent??? Do you mean they're "underpaid" in the moral sense that people complain that baseball players get 8000x more money than cancer researchers?

Even if there's some merit to that moral conception of "just" salaries, it can't be justified when it comes to gov't salaries. Judges' salaries come out of tax dollars. In what sense is it a good expenditure of tax dollars to take scarce public funds and spend them on raising judges' salaries from, say, $150K to $200K -- when we could spend that money on a zillion other projects for security, the por, etc.?

6. Posted by Scott Moss on May 10, 2006 @ 20:35 | Permalink

You know, I'm just picturing it now: maybe Luttig should've held a telethon for himself rather than retire and deprive us of his adjudication abilities. I mean, if he's going to be true to his conservative roots, wouldn't it be better for voluntary private charity, rather than YOUR tax dollars, to fund the important public necessity of better funding for federal judges?

7. Posted by Paul Stancil on May 11, 2006 @ 11:07 | Permalink

Scott -- I'm not sure I completely agree with your supply and demand arguments. The way I see it, it all hinges on whether your definition of "talented" is consonant with the needs of the justice system in the abstract. I'm sure GE could find hundreds or even thousands of "talented" potential CEOs at $175,000 in total annual compensation, but does that mean it should hire its next chief executive from the pool submitting applications for announced compensation at that level?

The economic argument for increased compensation for judges is not based solely upon the absence of a large "applicant pool" at current compensation levels. You're right -- the pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits of an Article III judgeship are sufficient to attract quantitatively more willing supply than demand. The argument is instead based upon a normative assessment that the current applicant pool isn't good enough. That assessment is certainly open to debate, but the economics are as much about qualitative supply as about quantitative supply.

The contrast is substantially starker at the state level, where the quality of the judges ranges from the spectacular to the utterly abysmal (guess which judges tend to stick around longer?). The quality of state court judging is in many places unacceptably low, and I think a pay increase of 20-30% would have a huge positive impact on the overall system.

It is critical to think about quality expectations and median applicant opportunity costs at the desired quality level on the front end, something private firms do with relative success, but governments don't.

8. Posted by bill on May 11, 2006 @ 11:34 | Permalink

Slightly OT, but how is a guy who spent ages 37 to 51 as an appellate judge, and a significant period in DC gov't jobs before that, actually qualified to be the GC of one the world's largest multinational companies? Particularly one which does so much international business as opposed to domestic?

9. Posted by Scott Moss on May 11, 2006 @ 12:15 | Permalink

Paul -- I think we pretty much agree. Perhaps I spoke imprecisely, but yes, an employer need not merely "enough" applications, but ideally enough A-list applications. Obviously there are diminishing returns to higher pay: a $500K salary might attract a few more genius law firm partners to seek appellate judgeships -- but at $171K, there seem to be plenty immensely qualified folks to fill the small number of openings.

I agree that at many other levels of government, a higher salary could make a big difference. Some DA and PD offices don't get the best folks because a lot of highlyt talented and interested law grads can't take the lousy salary, given their $100K+ debt.

10. Posted by Alan Meese on May 11, 2006 @ 22:38 | Permalink

The fact that lots of people are willing to do a job at current wages does not establish that the wages are too high, or even just right. I'd gladly play for the Chicago Bulls for a mere $300,000 per year. So would lots of other people. But, I have heard that the Bulls pay more than that. Perhaps they pay more because they think there are better players than this 41 year old antitrust professor?

Does anyone realy believe that we have the best possible judiciary, i.e., that most or all judges are "immensely qualified?"? I (and others) suspect that higher salaries would increase the pool of individuals willing to serve and that some of those individuals would be better judges than some who currently occupy the Federal Bench. Moreover, the individuals "excluded" by low salaries are those who would command higher salaries elsewhere, i.e., folks who work in the private sector. It stands to reason that the current salary structure skews the pool toward folks in the public sector and academia, although salaries for many 51 year old academics are high than judges' salaries, too. Having more judges who have actually worked in the wealth-creating sector of the economy for a substantial period might be a healthy development.

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