With the passing of Kenneth Starr this week, the legal profession lost one of its most enduring and impactful figures of the last century. As someone who was able to work with Starr in litigation, I can honestly say that Starr was one of the best lawyers that I have seen in court. He not only had a brilliant legal mind but brought a sense of extraordinary clarity and precision to the law. It was that penetrating intellect that repeatedly led to his being called upon to handle some of this nation’s most intractable and controversial matters. He was often repaid with partisan hostility by the media and Congress. However, he never stooped to the level of his critics. He remained one of the most modest, respectful, and kind individuals that I have ever known.
It is easy to rattle off the list of high-ranking appointments and high-profile cases that made Ken Starr such a historic legal figure. A federal judge, Solicitor General, Independent Counsel, litigator, and academic, Starr left a legacy that few could hope to match in our profession. However, Starr was more than the collection of his resume items. Much more.
While rarely discussed in the media, the life of Ken Starr embodied the very best of the American dream. It is the story of a boy who was the youngest of three children of a Texas barber. proudly calling himself a fifth generation Texan, Starr was born. near the Red River and the Oklahoma border in the tiny town of Thalia with roughly 100 residents and not a single traffic light. The family had little money but made up for it with an abundance of faith. His father served as the local minister and Ken Starr would sell Bibles door-to-door. He grew up as a typical kid going for hamburgers at Jay’s Drive-In and a movie with friends. While Starr would be declared the “most likely to succeed” at Sam Houston High School, few likely imagined that this soft-spoken class president would become a household name and one of the most important lawyers of his generation.
Starr, however, soon went down the dirt road near his home in search of a life of service different from his father. It would take him first to Harding University, a Church of Christ-affiliated school in Searcy, Arkansas and then to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. where he would get his degree in history. He would then go to Duke Law School where he continued to excel as a student. He was given a prestigious appellate clerkship on the Fifth Circuit and then served as a Supreme Court clerk to Chief Justice Warren Burger. After working in a top law firm, he was made counselor to U.S. Attorney General William French Smith.
With each position, Starr stood out for his discipline and skills as a lawyer. President Ronald Reagan appointed Starr to the D.C. Circuit where he served with distinction until he resigned to become the United States Solicitor General under George H.W. Bush. He would argue dozens of cases and was considered one of the best litigators to hold that office.
When controversies arose, Congress and the courts always seemed to call upon Starr, who always answered that call to service. That was the case when the Senate needed to investigate Sen. Bob Packwood (R., Ore.) and it was again the case when Clinton aide Vince Foster committed suicide. In each investigation, Starr’s conclusions were not welcomed by some Republicans, including in his conclusion that Foster died by his own hand.
Then there was the Clinton scandal. Starr found himself at the center of a political hurricane as he pursued possible crimes committed by Bill Clinton. The two men had a similar background as kids born in small, poor towns in the South. Both rose to national fame due to their proven intellect and skills. However, that is where the comparisons ended. Clinton was a walking moral hazard who was notorious even as a state politician for serial adultery. Where Starr displayed a quiet but deep faith, Clinton regularly professed his faith while violating every precept of it.
Suddenly, Starr was made persona non grata by a press intent upon protecting Clinton. Even though democrats admitted that Clinton committed perjury in the Monica Lewinsky matter (and a federal judge affirmed that view), law professors like Harvard Professor Laurence Tribe insisted that perjury was not an impeachable offense. (I would testify at that same impeachment hearing on the other side). Clinton also committed acts that could have been charged as obstruction and witness tampering.
Faced with clear criminal conduct like perjury, the media instead attacked the man who helped bring that conduct to light. Major media and Democratic figures vilified Starr in grotesquely unfair hit pieces on a weekly basis.
Despite the unrelenting personal attacks, Starr remained professional and respectful through this nightmare. Starr remained firmly tethered to core principles. He once said that “Truth is a bedrock concept in morality and law.” It was his North Star and guided everything that he did; everything that he believed.
Starr loved being a lawyer. He found a profession that valued his penchant for precision and persuasion. In later years, Starr would continue to take on major cases like his roles in the Jeffrey Epstein case and in the first Trump impeachment. I did not always agree with his clients or causes but he remained one of the top litigators in the country who fought zealously for his clients. He also quietly continued his life of service in other ways, including representing indigent death row inmates. After Starr was stripped of his presidency at Baylor University after a sexual abuse scandal on the football team, he resigned his position as Chancellor and academic position. He insisted that he was not aware of the scandal until it became public. However, he declared that the university needed a clean break and “the captain goes down with the ship.” He walked away and again refused to exchange barbs in the media with critics who superficially played up the controversy as Starr’s “own sex scandal.”
Indeed, during the Clinton scandal and for the decades that followed, I never heard Starr utter a profane or mean-spirited thought. Despite years of grossly unfair treatment in the media, Starr retained his signature calm and civility.
Starr refused to allow the hate and the harassment to corrupt him or his view of others. He came too far from that dirt road in Thalia to lose his way in Washington. To the end, he was a man of faith. Not just in the religious sense, but a faith in the legal system and the transcendent power of truth. Ken Starr was not just a great lawyer; he was an even greater rarity in Washington, he was a decent man.
This column ran in the Fox.com.