Ken Starr, a polarizing and powerful figure who served as a federal judge, solicitor general and university president, died Tuesday at 76 following complications from abdominal surgery.
Most widely known for his investigation into the Clintons that unveiled an affair and led to the impeachment of a president, Starr served as U.S. solicitor general from 1989 until 1993 — arguing 36 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court — and before that as a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals from 1983 to 1989.
He met a law student named Mark Lanier in 1984 while filling in for an ill Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor as presiding judge in the National Moot Court Competition in Chicago, an encounter that netted Lanier an award for Best Oralist and led to a nearly 40-year relationship between the two men.
“Getting the top speaker award was special because he gave me that award — he handed it to me,” Lanier said in a recent interview with The Texas Lawbook. “He took an interest in me as a young lawyer, and I’ll never forget that because he had no reason to.”
In 2016, when the Baylor University Board of Regents stripped Starr of his title as president in the wake of an investigation revealing he mishandled several reports of sexual assault involving members of the football team, he resigned as chancellor and as a constitutional law professor at the Baylor School of Law and in 2018 joined The Lanier Law Firm.
Lanier had been counseling Starr, “dealing with the fallout and issues that were arising” during the end of his tenure at Baylor and represented him during his ultimate departure from the university.
The closing of that door opened another.
“I knew what was going on in his world in a very clear way, and I was able to say to him, ‘You’ve got to figure out where to go next,’” Lanier said, anticipating many firms would want to hire someone with Starr’s experience.
The Lanier Firm is a sole proprietorship, but he offered Starr a rare of counsel role with the firm.
“We didn’t negotiate, he said ‘Alice and I prayed about it and this is what I want,’” Lanier said.
Starr kept busy at the firm, involving himself in the firm’s representation of Texas and 13 other states in antitrust litigation against Google that remains ongoing, took on pro bono religious liberty appeals and became what Lanier called the “principal architect” of the firm’s appellate strategy in the $2.5 billion Johnson & Johnson talc powder case.
“He brought John Ashcroft on to our team,” Lanier said of Starr’s work in the talc case. “He helped oversee not simply the appeal in Missouri in state court, but the strategy in the U.S. Supreme Court. That was really huge.”
That victory was one that Starr was proud of, Lanier said, and is a testament to the qualities that helped foster their relationship through the years.
“I knew him to be smart beyond measure, industrious and hard working,” Lanier said. “I knew him to be kind, and this may seem bizarre to some, but he’s truly a peacemaker.”
While Starr was dean at Pepperdine School of Law and Lanier’s daughters were completing their undergraduate work there, he invited Lanier and his wife to a dinner party at his home in Malibu.
“Alice and Ken greet us at the door, behind us is someone else and we move inside and just inside the door is Chief Justice John Roberts,” Lanier said. “Ken had never told me, and the chief justice sticks out his hand and says ‘Hi, I’m John.’”
The year prior, Lanier was asked by Starr to judge a moot court competition at the school and said he wondered why he hadn’t been asked to do it again.
“I asked the chief justice ‘What are you doing here?’” Lanier recalled. “He said ‘Ken Starr gave me my first job, and he has always held it over my head and called and asked if I would judge the moot court competition final round.’ I started laughing. … I didn’t feel nearly so bad that I was not asked to repeat.”
Starr received a bachelor’s degree from George Washington University, a master’s degree from Brown University and a law degree from Duke University Law School. He was a law clerk for Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Fifth Circuit Judge David W. Dyer and later worked at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher and Kirkland &Ellis.
For 124 days before his death, Starr had been in a surgical intensive care unit after infection and other complications plagued him following abdominal surgery, Lanier said. On Monday, Starr’s wife, Alice, called Lanier and asked that he visit Starr in the hospital.
“It was very apparent [Monday] that his fight was over,” Lanier said.
Remembering his friend and mentor as someone who loved singing old church hymns with others and who had developed a “great” singing voice after growing up singing a cappella in the Church of Christ, Lanier, a pastor, went to the hospital Monday night to sing him a hymn.
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” was the song Lanier chose. “The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy at the end of Paul’s life and said ‘I’ve fought the good fight, I’ve finished the race, and I’ve kept the faith,’ That can be said of Ken,” Lanier said. “It’s an appropriate epithet: A life well lived — and not perfect — but well lived.”