Ken Starr leads Jan. 13 discussion of his new book

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Ken Starr Spends Day at Duke Law School
Clinton Prober’s Current Passion is Supreme Court

By Kimberly Sweet

The following article ran in The Herald-Sun of Durham on Jan. 14, 2003 and is reprinted here with permission from the newspaper.

Some call him a hero and others say he is a demon, depending on their political bent.

But Duke law students welcomed Kenneth Starr as one of their own Monday, as the former solicitor general and independent counsel appeared at his alma mater to visit with students and professors and talk about his new book.

With Whitewater and his role in investigating former President Clinton's sexual indiscretions firmly behind him, Starr talked to students about his decision to pursue a new calling: to help Americans better understand the Supreme Court.

It is a task perhaps more difficult than compiling the 400-plus pages of a report that ultimately led to the impeachment of Clinton in the House. The Senate acquitted him.

Ken Starr
Starr signs three copies of his new book, "First Among Equal: The Supreme Court in American Life," for 1L Kara Moorcroft.
Photo by Bill Willcox/Durham Herald-Sun

“I don't think a person should have to be a law school grad to be learned in the law,” Starr said. “But most Americans have never read any part of the Constitution.”

He said it's a calling he's had since arguing in front of the court in Texas v. Johnson, the case in which justices ruled 5-4 that flag burning was a form of expression protected by the First Amendment.

As he held law students in rapt attention Monday, Starr told them how flag burning was seen as reprehensible by members of the World War II generation. But justices who were members of that generation and voted in the majority were able to put their emotions aside and be guided by the principles of the law, he said.

He wanted Americans to see the process through which judges were able to do that - to examine the opinions and the arguments.

“That was my epiphany,” he said. “I decided when I left [the solicitor general's] office, I wanted to make the court more accessible to the entire nation.”

The result is a book released last October titled First Among Equals: The Supreme Court in American Life. The book looks at the evolution of the Supreme Court from its beginnings and talks about the most significant cases argued in front of the justices during the last 30 years, including cases like Roe v. Wade and Bush v. Gore.

“One of the things people tend to argue about over the dinner table is issues like abortion or affirmative action,” Starr said, adding that he wanted to give people a resource that would help them become better educated on the issues.

Americans, he said, shouldn't be intimidated when it comes to reading Supreme Court decisions.

Starr talked briefly about his stint as independent counselor in the Whitewater investigation, telling students that his family lightly refers to it as the "recent unpleasantness."

When one student asked him about his chances of being nominated to the Supreme Court, he said he knew the investigation likely disqualified him.

“But I'm very clear-headed about the controversy during the whole Lewinsky phase,” Starr said. “I've sort of moved on.”

Responding to students' questions, Starr was vocal on a number of issues, including putting cameras in the Supreme Court. The public's interest in the court's business, proved during Bush v. Gore, shows a need for them.

“I think they are long overdue,” he said. “But I think it's going to take a fair amount of public expression and interest.”

While a few justices might be sympathetic, the majority opposes the idea, he said.

When asked about a case that soon will be heard by the court, involving the University of Michigan's admission policies, Starr predicted the court would vote to allow the university to uphold them.

Students in the case have challenged admission practices because race is used as a factor. The last time the court ruled on affirmative action in higher education was in the 1978 Bakke case. While striking down the use of a quota for minorities, Justice Lewis Powell wrote that achieving a diverse student body is compelling enough to justify consideration of race under some circumstances.

“I would say a five-person majority will be willing to accept diversity as a compelling rationale in higher education,” Starr said.

Starr also lightheartedly recalled his time at Duke's Law School. The alumnus, who is co-chairman of the 1973 class reunion, formerly sat in classes with professors still at the school today. He recalled taking a class from William Van Alstyne, a professor renowned in the field of constitutional law. As a law student, Starr said, he was amazed by the professor's intelligence and didn't know how he would ever match up.

“He is so smart,” Starr said. “At the time I thought maybe that career at J.C. Penney was going to be it after all.”

© Durham Herald Company, Inc.