Ken Starr lived a remarkable life in the law. At various times, Judge, Solicitor General, Independent Counsel, law school dean, university president, defense lawyer for everyone from big tobacco to President Trump, and finally a plaintiffs’ lawyer with Mark Lanier. With a career so full and varied, it’s inevitable that aspects of his legacy are complicated. Indeed, even figuring out what to call him—Judge Starr, General Starr, Dean Starr, President Starr—was complicated. But one aspect of Ken Starr’s legacy was straightforward: He was an amazing mentor.
Many of the keys to Ken’s gift for mentorship were also what made him a great lawyer. He had an incredible memory and cared deeply about the people he worked with. When I was doing the recruiting rounds after my clerkship, I viewed a recruiting lunch with Ken, then just coming off of his successful tenure as Solicitor General, as a highlight of the summer. When I next saw Ken a few months later, having started as an associate in his appellate practice, I discovered that he remembered the details of what we discussed at lunch even more vividly than I did.
Ken was incredibly candid and honest with his junior colleagues. That was evident to me before I even started to work for him. When I finished the recruiting rounds and finally made my decision to practice with Ken, I called him to let him know and expected his trademark enthusiasm in response. Instead, for one of the few times I can remember, Ken was at a loss for words and said he would call me back. I was concerned with his reaction and started to wonder whether I had made the wrong choice. But then an hour or two later Ken called me back to apologize for his unusual demeanor. He went on to explain that he was about to be named special prosecutor, which would mean that he would only be practicing appellate law part-time. He did not want me to accept an offer to join his practice on false pretenses and so had gotten permission to tell me about his impending appointment. When I assured him that I was undeterred, all the trademark enthusiasm was back.
Ken was a delight to work with and was willing to trust his junior colleagues with all the responsibility that they could handle and then some. His decision initially to split his time between the Special Prosecutor’s office and his private appellate practice drew criticism. But I can confirm that half of Ken Starr will get you more effort and enthusiasm than a full-time almost anyone else. His part-time status probably did contribute to me getting more responsibility more quickly than would have otherwise been the case, but Ken still had time for guidance and editing. He also made sure that his junior colleagues were in the room and heard for all the critical aspects of the case, no matter how high the stakes.
Needless to say, Ken’s tenure as Independent Counsel was full of controversy and amply demonstrates the difficulties of that short-lived statutory office and the unique challenges of investigating a sitting President. But it is worth remembering how uncontroversial Ken was before he took that job. As a former federal judge who had served with distinction as Solicitor General but taken some criticism from within his own party, he was briefly virtually every Democrat’s favorite Republican. When it came to the unenviable and thorny task of reviewing Senator Bob Packwood’s diaries, Ken was the obvious and uncontroversial choice. Taking the Independent Counsel job forever changed that, and Ken knew as much at the time. He took the job anyways despite his own doubts about the post’s constitutionality, because of his conception of public duty and public service. One can question the choice—my own takeaway was never to take a job that is unconstitutional—but not his commitment to public service.
I was proud as a young lawyer to carry Ken’s bag. I had the chance to brief a number of cases with him and to watch him argue them. But my last encounter with Ken was on opposite sides of the v. in a Fifth Circuit case where Ken was arguing for the plaintiff and I was arguing for the defendant. Ken’s positions on tort law that morning were pretty different from those we took together in our briefs back in the day. But everything else about Ken was the same. He was as enthusiastic as ever, asked about all my sons, was gifted at the podium, gave me a warm hug afterward, and congratulated me on my argument. Whatever about his remarkable and varied career that might be complicated, his legacy as a mentor to everyone from the Chief Justice and on down, is straightforward and consequential. And for all those fancy and complicated titles, the one that fits best for those who had the pleasure to work with him and carry his litigation bag is Uncle Ken.
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