Starr to offer up views on high court tonight |

Starr to offer up views on high court tonight

Judge Kenneth Starr, perhaps best known for his role as the independent prosecutor who investigated President Bill Clinton’s actions around the Monica Lewinsky affair, will take the stage in Paepcke Auditorium tonight.

Starr, the third speaker in The Aspen Institute’s Summer Lecture Series, will focus his discussion on the U.S. Supreme Court and its role in American life. It’s a subject on which he’s well versed: His book, “First Among Equals: The Supreme Court in American Life,” was recently published.

The book looks at the nation’s high court over the past 30 years, with special attention to some of the more controversial decisions that have day-to-day impact on the lives of Americans – from the Miranda decision in the mid-1960s that defined the rights of the accused to this year’s decision to invalidate a Texas law that outlawed sodomy.

It also discusses the relationship of the court to the other branches of government, and the current court’s role in redefining the relationship between states and the federal government.

“There are plenty of books for lawyers. This was intended to be a book for the American people,” Starr said in an interview yesterday. “The point was to make it accessible to a lay audience.”

He said the chapter of his book commented on the most is the one that offers brief biographies and analyses of the sitting justices.

In tonight’s speech, which begins at 6:30, Starr hopes to demystify the court’s back-room culture and longstanding traditions – from the robing room to the “Oh yea, oh yea,” that kicks off each session.

Starr was solicitor general under the first President Bush and represented the administration before the high court hundreds of times.

Starr will also discuss two recent and controversial decisions: upholding the University of Michigan law school’s admission policy that takes race into consideration and the overturning of the Texas sodomy law. The speech will end with a discussion of the court’s primacy in America’s system of government.

Asked to provide a preview of the opinions he’ll share tonight on the Michigan and Texas cases, Starr said he didn’t want to give the ending away. “We’ll let that wait,” he said.

But he did expand on the question of the court’s primacy. While at one level it often appears that the court is the most powerful branch of government, he pointed out that only the president has the ability to wage war, and only Congress has the power to allocate tax dollars.

“It is the final word in terms of what powers the other branches have and the individual rights that the American people have, so in that limited sense the Supreme Court is the most powerful branch,” he said.

Starr said he has been met at speeches with sharp questioning about his role in the Clinton impeachment. But he said for the most part the interactions have been civil even when it was clear that the people questioning him had opinions that differed sharply from his.

“American people are polite, whatever their opinions may be,” he said. Then he added: “I’m glad I’m out of that business, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.”

Starr is scheduled to argue in front of the Supreme Court in an extraordinary hearing in September on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. He will be arguing to overturn the law, which attempts to control the way so-called “soft money,” money that is not tied to a specific candidate, is spent.

“I’m a liberty guy,” he said of his position against such spending limits.

Starr is also representing the mother of the girl who is at the center of the 9th Circuit Court controversy over the pledge of allegiance. The girl’s father filed a lawsuit challenging a law requiring her daughter to utter the pledge in public school. A three-judge panel from the 9th Circuit agreed with his argument and declared it illegal to force public school students to pledge their allegiance.

In June, the full panel of 24 judges rejected, by a 14-10 vote, a request by the Bush administration to reconsider the original ruling.

The girl’s mother, who is separated from the father, disagrees, however, and has hired Starr as her attorney to argue in favor of giving schools the ability to require the pledge as part of the regular school day.

Starr is also representing wine producers in their effort to overturn state laws that limit or bar them from shipping their wine directly to restaurants and other end users, and software manufacturers in their ongoing battle to force Microsoft to open up its operating system software to non-Microsoft products.

In addition to serving as solicitor general from 1989-93, Starr also spent six years in the 1980s as a circuit judge on the District of Columbia Circuit Court. He currently practices law as a partner at Kirkland and Ellis, LLC and teaches law at New York and George Mason universities.

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is]

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