FILE – In this image from video, Ken Starr, an attorney for President Donald Trump speaks during closing arguments in the impeachment trial against Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Feb. 3, 2020.Starr, whose criminal investigation of Bill Clinton led to the presidentâ€™s impeachment, died Sept. 13, 2022. He was 76. (Senate Television via AP, File)
WASHINGTON — Ken Starr, a former federal appellate judge and attorney whose criminal investigation of Bill Clinton led to the president’s impeachment in the 1990s, has died at age 76, his family said Tuesday.
His wife, Alice Starr, said he spent the past 17 weeks at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center fighting an undisclosed illness and died of complications of surgery, but gave no further details.
For a time, Ken Starr was a household name, and his investigation into Clinton’s affair with a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, propelled issues of sex, morality, accountability and ideology to the center of American life for more than a year.
He became a Rorschach test for the post-Cold War generation, a hero to his admirers for taking on whom they considered an indecent president who despoiled the Oval Office and a villain to his detractors, who saw him as sex-obsessed and driven by partisanship. His investigation tested the boundaries of the Constitution when it prompted the first impeachment of a president in 130 years and scarred Clinton’s legacy and his own.
As Clinton’s legal problems worsened, the White House pilloried Starr as a right-wing fanatic doing the bidding of Republicans bent on destroying the president.
“The assaults took a toll” on the investigation, Starr told a Senate committee in 1999. “A duly authorized federal law enforcement investigation came to be characterized as yet another political game. Law became politics by other means.”
Starr returned to the public stage in 2020 as a lawyer for President Donald Trump during his first Senate trial, this time taking the opposite side and denouncing what he called “the Age of Impeachment” as a weapon in partisan wars.
“Like war, impeachment is hell,” he told the Senate during the proceeding that, like Clinton’s 21 years earlier, ended in acquittal. “Or at least presidential impeachment is hell.”
No one knew that better than Starr, whose steady climb through the ranks of the conservative legal world was upended by his unexpected journey into a presidential sex scandal. Starr served as a widely respected appeals court judge and solicitor general projected as a future Supreme Court justice before becoming a lightning rod during the Clinton investigation.
He went on to serve as dean of Pepperdine University’s law school in California and president of Baylor University, but was demoted and later resigned from Baylor after an investigation found that the university had mishandled accusations of sexual assault against members of the football team. The investigators rebuked the university leadership, saying it had “created a perception that football was above the rules.”
In a statement, Starr apologized to “those victims who were not treated with the care, concern and support they deserve.”
Starr also drew criticism for representing billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein when he was accused of sex crimes against young girls in Florida and eventually made a plea agreement accepting only minor charges and a light sentence.
In an email she sent Tuesday to colleagues and friends of the family, Alice Starr called her husband a “brilliant, kind and loving” man who, despite what his critics said, “did not have a mean bone in his body” and was a friend to everyone he met.
“Ever since law school, he was determined to fight for the rule of law, and he labored tirelessly to provide equal justice and religious freedom around the world,” she wrote. “Ken felt compelled to always respond to the call to serve his country, even when it meant enduring harsh criticism for his service. He was courageous and determined to work for a fair and just outcome no matter the task, and he never responded in kind to hurtful libel or slander.”
Starr was a mentor and boss to many future legal stars, including Chief Justice John Roberts, who worked for him in Ronald Reagan’s administration, and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who worked in the independent counsel’s office.
Both issued statements Tuesday mourning his death.
“Ken loved our country and served it with dedication and distinction,” Roberts said. “He led by example, in the legal profession, public service and the community.”
Kavanaugh added: “Fiercely devoted to the Constitution and to the United States, Judge Starr was a great lawyer, judge, scholar and teacher.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell remembered Starr Tuesday as “a brilliant litigator, an impressive leader and a devoted patriot.”
In a post to his Truth Social account, Trump paid tribute to Starr as “a true American Patriot who loved our Country and the Law. I so appreciated his support and his thoughts that our cause against fascists and other mentally sick people in our Country is just.”
IT STARTED WITH WHITEWATER
The episode that came to define Starr’s career started out as an examination into a misbegotten Arkansas real estate venture involving Clinton and his wife, Hillary Clinton, called Whitewater. But it morphed into an utterly different investigation with the discovery that the president had carried on an affair with Lewinsky and then sought to cover it up during an unrelated sexual harassment lawsuit.
Starr’s investigation forced Bill Clinton to confess that he had lied and ultimately led to a contempt-of-court citation against the president and the surrender of his law license.
In his memoir, “Contempt,” published in 2018, two decades after the sensational events of that era, Starr offered second thoughts about pursuing Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky but condemned the former president’s prevarications and what he called his disrespect for the rule of law.
“I deeply regret that I took on the Lewinsky phase of the investigation,” he wrote. “At the same time, as I still see it 20 years later, there was no practical alternative to my doing so.”
Asked later on “CBS This Morning” what parts he regretted, he said, “I regretted the whole thing, but it had to be done.”
A minister’s son who sold Bibles door to door to pay for college, Kenneth Winston Starr was born July 21, 1946, in Vernon, Texas.
He spent two years at Harding College, a Christian school in Searcy, Ark., now called Harding University. He transferred and earned his bachelor of arts from George Washington University in 1968, his master of arts from Brown University in 1969 and his law degree from Duke University Law School in 1973.
He married Alice Mendell in 1970, one week before starting law school, and they went on to have three children and nine grandchildren. He served as a law clerk for Chief Justice Warren Burger and then joined the Washington office of the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
Starr was considered brilliant, ambitious and deeply conservative, part of the vanguard of a new generation of legal minds determined to reshape the judiciary after years in which liberal jurists had dominated.
He went to work as chief of staff to Attorney General William French Smith in the Reagan administration and was then appointed by Reagan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
In one of his most notable cases, he wrote the opinion in a 7-1 ruling throwing out a libel case filed by William Tavoulareas, the president of Mobil Oil, against The Washington Post. The newspaper was represented by David Kendall, who would go on to represent Clinton and cross knives with Starr during the Whitewater and Lewinsky investigations.
Starr stepped down to become solicitor general for President George H.W. Bush, a position often called the 10th justice.
After Bush lost reelection to Clinton, Starr was assigned by Congress to evaluate the diaries of Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., who resigned after allegations of sexual misconduct. Over the course of his career, he argued 36 times before the Supreme Court.
While a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, Starr was appointed independent counsel by a three-judge panel to investigate the Whitewater deal during Clinton’s time as governor of Arkansas. Starr also investigated the suicide of Vincent Foster, a White House lawyer and longtime friend of the Clintons; the firing of White House Travel Office staff; and the obtaining of confidential FBI files on Republican administration officials.
He successfully prosecuted a number of figures in the Clinton circles, including Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, Bill Clinton’s successor in Arkansas, but never charged either of the Clintons. He believed Hillary Clinton had lied to investigators and his office did draft an indictment, but he concluded that it would not win a conviction and never pursued it.
His inquiry was wrapping up when he was told that Bill Clinton was seeking to obstruct a lawsuit filed by Paula Corbin Jones — a former Arkansas government employee who accused him of sexual harassment. Linda Tripp, a friend and colleague of Lewinsky’s at the Pentagon, taped their conversations discussing the affair with Clinton and plans to hide it from Jones’ lawyers.
With permission from Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, Starr’s investigators confirmed the affair despite the president’s denials under oath in the Jones case as well as his efforts to coach other potential witnesses to guard his indiscretions.
The investigation played out in exceedingly public fashion, a tawdry, unseemly case that dominated the headlines for months with stories about thongs, cigars and a blue semen-stained dress. The public was alternately captivated and horrified as a sitting president’s extramarital sexual adventures — and his deceptions about it — were exposed more vividly than at any time in American history.
The report that Starr sent to the House, written largely by Kavanaugh, described the president’s encounters with Lewinsky in explicit, even excruciating detail. While it was not intended to be released unredacted, House leaders made it public without first reading it. The Starr Report, as it became known, documented the case against Clinton and generated sympathy for him because of its seeming excesses.
The House impeached Clinton in December 1998, largely along party lines, but the Senate acquitted him in February 1999, concluding that the president’s wrongdoing did not justify removing him from office.
Clinton was separately found in contempt of court and fined by a federal judge.
In his final hours before leaving office, Clinton struck a deal with Starr’s successor in which the president admitted not telling the truth under oath, paid a fine and surrendered his law license. But Starr became “the most criticized man in America,” as he put it, the target of Clinton allies and the punchline of late-night comedy sketches.
“Half the country loved him. The other half loathed him,” Ken Gormley, the author of a book about the struggle between Starr and Clinton, once said.
There was never any reconciliation between Starr and the Clintons.
During an interview in 2009, Bill Clinton talked about the various one-time foes he had come to befriend or at least make peace with, including Bush, Newt Gingrich, Rupert Murdoch and Richard Mellon Scaife. What about Starr, he was asked.
“Well,” Clinton said, and then paused. “That’s another kettle of fish.”
In a Tuesday tweet, Lewinsky expressed mixed emotions on the news of Starr’s death.
“As I’m sure many can understand, my thoughts about ken starr bring up complicated feelings,” she tweeted. “But of more importance, is that i imagine it’s a painful loss for those who love him.”
Starr’s friends and admirers always insisted that he was misunderstood by the public and caricatured by the Clinton political machine. For all his notoriety, they saw him as a genial, principled, professional lawyer who acted out of genuine commitment to what he thought was right.
“Ken was a truly kind and wonderful person,” Elizabeth Locke, a lawyer and friend, said Tuesday. “Contrary to … the way he was portrayed in the wake of the Whitewater investigation, he was one of the most gentle souls you would ever know. And he was one of the most ethical lawyers I have ever met.”
In addition to his wife, Starr is survived by a son, Randall Starr; two daughters, Carolyn Doolittle and Cynthia Roemer; a sister, Billie Reynolds; and a brother, Jerry Starr.
Information for this article was contributed by Peter Baker of The New York Times and by Jake Bleiberg, Jim Vertuno, Terry Wallace and the late Pete Yost of The Associated Press.