WASHINGTON — Ken Starr, a former federal appellate judge and prominent attorney whose criminal investigation of Bill Clinton led to the president’s impeachment, died Tuesday at age 76, his family said.
In 2020, he was recruited to the legal team representing President Donald Trump in the nation’s third presidential impeachment trial.
For many years, Starr’s stellar reputation as a lawyer seemed to set him on the path to the Supreme Court. At 37, he became the youngest person to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia also sat. From 1989 to 1993, Starr served as Solicitor General in the administration of President George HW Bush, arguing 25 cases before the Supreme Court.
Despite his impressive legal credentials, nothing could have prepared him for the task of investigating a sitting president.
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In a five-year investigation, Starr investigated fraudulent real estate transactions involving a longtime Clinton associate, looked into the removal of documents from the office of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster after his suicide and gathered evidence of Clinton’s sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern. Each of the controversies had the potential to cause serious, even fatal, damage to Clinton’s presidency.
As Clinton’s legal troubles mounted, the White House pilloried Starr as a right-wing zealot bidding on Republicans bent on destroying the president.
“The assaults took their toll” on the investigation, Starr told a Senate committee in 1999. “A duly authorized federal law enforcement investigation has come to be characterized as another political game. Law is become political by other means.
In a bitter conclusion to his investigation into the Lewinsky case that drew even more criticism, Starr filed a report, as required by law, with the United States House of Representatives. He found that Clinton lied under oath, engaged in obstruction of justice, and followed behavior inconsistent with the president’s constitutional duty to faithfully enforce the laws. House Republicans used Starr’s report as a road map in impeaching the president, who was acquitted in a Senate trial.
In 2020, he was recruited to help represent Trump in the nation’s third impeachment trial. In a memorable statement to Congress during Trump’s impeachment trial, Starr said “we are living in what I think can be aptly described as ‘the age of impeachment’.” He said that “like war, impeachment is hell, or at least presidential impeachment is hell.
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Clinton’s legal troubles began during the 1992 presidential campaign. Questions arose about the candidate’s ties to the owner of a failed Arkansas savings and loan. The problem quickly faded. But it caught the attention of federal regulators, who began investigating whether the S&L money had been diverted to a real estate venture called Whitewater in which Bill and Hillary Clinton and S&L owner Jim McDougal shared a financial interest.
Bowing to intense political pressure from Republicans and some members of his own party, Clinton called for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Whitewater. A three-member appeals court for independent attorneys chose Starr.
On the Whitewater front, Starr prosecutors investigated Hillary Clinton’s legal work for Jim McDougal’s S&L. She and the president were questioned by Starr prosecutors and their videotaped depositions played before juries during the criminal trials of McDougal and his ex-wife Susan. None of the Clintons have ever been charged in connection with Whitewater.
The investigation into Clinton’s intimate relationship with Lewinsky was a show in Washington.
In 1995, Lewinsky went to work at the White House as an intern. During the government shutdown at the end of that year, she and Clinton had a sexual encounter in a hallway near the Oval Office, the first of 10 sexual encounters over the next year and a half. Lewinsky assigned the case to a colleague, Linda Tripp, who recorded some of their conversations and took the tapes to Starr’s prosecutors. Lewinsky was granted immunity from prosecution and became Starr’s main witness against the president, who had denied having sex with Lewinsky.
Leaving the investigation behind, Starr embarked on an academic career, first as dean of law at Pepperdine University where he taught constitutional issues and civil procedure, then as president of Baylor University in his home state of Texas. He also became an author, writing “First Among Equals: The Supreme Court in American Life”.
Born in Vernon and raised in San Antonio, Starr received his BA from George Washington University in 1968, his MA from Brown University in 1969, and his JD degree from Duke University Law School in 1973. He served as a law clerk with of Chief Justice Warren E. Burger from 1975 to 1977.
As a young attorney at the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Los Angeles, Starr worked with William French Smith, who became attorney general in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Starr became an adviser to Smith, and from there was appointed by Reagan to the federal appeals court.
Former Associated Press writer Pete Yost contributed to this report.