The Honorable J. Michael Luttig, a prominent legal scholar and former U.S. Court of Appeals judge, joins the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy as its first Distinguished Fellow in Law and Democracy, a position sponsored in partnership with the Karsh Center for Law and Democracy at the UVA School of Law.
Luttig’s one-year fellowship begins Feb. 1 and focuses on legal and constitutional issues pertaining to elections, democratic institutions, and the relationship between states and the federal government.
It’s a homecoming for Luttig, who graduated from the School of Law in 1981 before serving as assistant counsel to President Ronald Reagan, assistant attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, and eventually as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, from 1991 to 2006.
“Judge Luttig is one of the nation’s leading legal minds and most influential voices,” said Karsh Institute Executive Director Melody Barnes. “His commitment to democracy and the rule of law and expertise relevant to issues at the heart of our work at the Karsh Institute will benefit students, scholars, and the public.”
As the Distinguished Fellow in Law and Democracy, Luttig will participate in public programming throughout the year, engaging in robust conversations about the different legal and constitutional questions surrounding the 2024 presidential election. The first event, “The 14th Amendment: When Should a Presidential Candidate Be Disqualified?” will take place Feb. 6 at the UVA Rotunda. It will feature Luttig and University of Richmond law professor Kurt Lash examining questions the Supreme Court will soon consider regarding the 14th Amendment and former President Donald Trump’s eligibility to appear on the primary ballot in Colorado.
These questions are more pressing than they have ever been in our history, and the Karsh Institute offers an important opportunity for critical analysis, Luttig said.
“The coming years will determine whether our democracy continues to be the envy of the world.”
“America’s democracy hangs in the balance today,” Luttig said. “The coming year and years will determine whether our democracy continues to be the envy of the world.”
The peril comes from the fact that, today, millions of Americans doubt the integrity of our own election system, Luttig said. Faith in American democracy and democratic norms and practices has further eroded, not strengthened, since 2020. In Luttig’s view, that leaves considerable work ahead to fortify the guardrails of our democracy and strengthen the rule of law—in not only reality but also public perception.
In addition to public outreach and scholarship, Luttig will also hold lectures and events at UVA Law School, engaging with students and faculty on some of the most important legal and constitutional questions before the country today.
“As an independent thinker, Judge Luttig has been a crucial voice on the importance of democratic institutions and in articulating how to strengthen our democracy,” said Risa Goluboff, chair of the Karsh Institute Advisory Board and UVA School of Law dean. “People often say that democracy is a verb, not a noun, because it’s something that we create and sustain every day. Judge Luttig is one person who, by deploying his considerable experience and intellect, shows us every day what it means to do democracy.”
"Judge Luttig is one person who, by deploying his considerable experience and intellect, shows us every day what it means to do democracy.”
Luttig said the chance to return to Charlottesville and to the school where he received his law degree makes the work even more appealing, a sentiment echoed at UVA Law.
“I am excited to welcome Judge Luttig back to the law school,” Karsh Center Director and law professor Bertrall Ross said. “He is a leader on issues surrounding the rule of law and democracy and will contribute immensely to the learning in our law school community. Judge Luttig will be a valuable spark for dialogue that is important to the future of American democracy.”
Before earning his law degree, Luttig worked as an administrative assistant to then–Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. After graduating from UVA, he became a White House lawyer during the Reagan administration, later clerking for then–D.C. Circuit Judge Antonin Scalia—a future U.S. Supreme Court Justice—and subsequently for Chief Justice Burger.
After a stint in private practice, Luttig rejoined the public sector in the Justice Department during George H.W. Bush’s presidency. He was later appointed and confirmed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, becoming the youngest judge at that time to have ever been in that role. After leaving the bench in 2006, he served as general counsel at Boeing (through 2019).
Luttig’s appointment at UVA will run from Feb. 1, 2024, to Jan. 31, 2025. Though he believes American democracy’s current challenges are unprecedented, Luttig also said he finds hope in the American people and that there’s no better place to do the work of strengthening democracy than at UVA.
“There can be little question that the Karsh Institute already is the leading institution for American democracy and will be for the foreseeable future,” Luttig said. “It’s a high honor for me to be associated with the Karsh Institute and the Karsh Center in the coming year.”