Perspective: Ken Starr was a Christian first


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In this file photo, Ken Starr testifies at the House Committee on Education and Workforce on college athletes forming unions on May 8, 2014, in Washington. Starr, whose criminal investigation of Bill Clinton led to the president’s impeachment, died Sept. 13, 2022. He was 76. | Lauren VIctoria Burke, Associated Press

Earlier this week, I had the bittersweet experience of arguing a case in the same courtroom where Ken Starr sat as a judge from 1985-86, when I served as his law clerk. During a few moments of solitude before the arguments began, I gazed at his portrait hanging on a wall and recalled with fondness the many examples of Christian discipleship that he set for me and so many others.

The court on which he served was the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, often called the “second highest court in the land” because of the major role it plays, one level below the Supreme Court, in overseeing the agencies of the federal government. In his role as a judge on that court (usually referred to as “the D.C. Circuit”), Starr left a distinguished legacy of important opinions in a number of areas, including statutory interpretation, church-state law, freedom of the press and, of course, administrative law.

From there, he would go on to serve with great distinction as the United States solicitor general — the nation’s top courtroom lawyer and its representative before the Supreme Court. He also became a partner at one of the nation’s top law firms, where he worked during his famous stint as the independent counsel investigating former President Bill Clinton. He would later serve as dean of the law school at Pepperdine University, as president and chancellor of Baylor University, and then finally, as a professor of constitutional law at Baylor. In recent years, he turned his efforts to protecting religious liberty, publishing a well-regarded book on the topic.

Despite this impressive resume, I quickly learned as his law clerk, and saw during our long subsequent friendship, that the title that meant the most to him wasn’t judge, general, partner, professor, dean or president.

It was Christian.

And he lived up to that title in each of his many professional roles.

Early in my work for him, for example, I was struck by his treatment of people with different views. At the D.C. Circuit during the 1980s, there were deep divisions on a number of important issues, including, most fundamentally, the proper role of the judiciary in our system of government. I remember talking with a clerk for another judge about a case we were both working on and being taken aback when he said, “We’re excited about this case because it’s going to give us a chance to make a little law.”

I thought, I doubt my boss is going to approach the case that way.

But despite the differences, large and small, Starr always treated his colleagues and their clerks with the utmost kindness and respect, as he did his own clerks and other staff.  I never saw or heard an angry, harsh or biting word, either written or spoken. And his door was always open to a colleague, or even another clerk, who wanted to take a shot at persuading him to change his mind when they disagreed.

Starr’s graciousness to his colleagues extended to the lawyers who appeared before him —something I appreciate more now that I often find myself on the other side of the bench.   Yes, Starr was an active and incisive questioner.  But I never saw him succumb to the temptation — if he was ever really tempted — to belittle or demean the counsel presenting arguments before him, despite the target-rich environment such arguments often provide.  Nor was there ever any attempt to prove to arguing lawyers that he knew more about the law, or the case, than they did (though he almost always did) and he never showed any expression of frustration or anger toward them. Here, too, graciousness and civility were his hallmarks.

What surprised and touched me most, though, was the way he treated the support staff.

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Shortly after I began my clerkship, I recall being asked by a court employee — a cashier in the cafeteria — who I worked for. When I told her I worked for Starr, she got a huge smile on her face and said, “He is such a nice man. Just last week he was down here and we got to talking about …” and she proceeded to recount what had obviously been an extended conversation, one that left her feeling that he was her friend.

I noticed too, as we would walk around the building together, that he seemed to know the name of every secretary or janitor or cleaning person we would meet, and something about them. As a result, they all loved him, in part because his very presence in the building made their jobs more satisfying.

I learned the next year that the same was true of the Supreme Court support staff who had known him when he clerked there (for Chief Justice Warren Burger) more than a decade earlier.

He was still loved, for example, by the Supreme Court barber, who was so slow that one justice had quipped of his service, “each hair gets personal attention.” Starr had obviously had many long conversations with the barber, which he recounted to me, in full, as I sat in his chai…

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