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Pepperdine Law School Adds Some Starr Power

As the new dean, the man who headed the Whitewater investigation brings his skills to the Malibu institution.

September 13, 2004|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

In the middle of the bookcase in his new office at the Pepperdine University School of Law, Kenneth W. Starr has a copy of Bill Clinton's best-selling autobiography, "My Life."

The book "is a remarkable story of the most talented man of politics of his generation," said Starr, who guided the Whitewater investigation, which eventually focused on the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal and led to Clinton's impeachment.

Starr ought to know something about remarkable, albeit controversial, personal stories. His resume is studded with high-ranking posts dating to the Reagan and elder Bush administrations, including stints as the solicitor general in the Justice Department and as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. Before his probe into the Whitewater land deal expanded into a polarizing issue in U.S. politics and threatened Clinton's presidency, Starr was talked about as a potential Republican nominee one day for the U.S. Supreme Court.

These days, Starr, 58, is spending most of his time far away from the action in Washington -- and, by some measures, in a much lower professional orbit. He will be formally installed today in a ceremony on Pepperdine's Malibu campus as the dean of its middle-rung law school, ranked as tied for 99th among the 178 U.S. law schools assessed this year by U.S. News & World Report magazine.

Starr, who in recent years has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and federal appeals courts for an array of big corporations, plans to continue handling high-profile litigation. And he won't rule out speaking out on behalf of political candidates or causes.

Still, Starr said he would keep politics out of his work at Pepperdine -- a Churches of Christ-affiliated university known for its conservatism -- and he wouldn't let his outside legal assignments divert his attention from his "full-time job" at the law school.

"My task is to serve, and this is a wonderful opportunity of service," said Starr, son of a Texas minister, who before studying law at Duke University considered going into the ministry or teaching college. "I'm helping as best I can to build the law school."

Starr, the Whitewater independent counsel from 1994 to 1999, remains a controversial national figure. In "My Life," Clinton accuses him of being biased, politically motivated and preoccupied with the former president's sex life. (Starr declined to respond to those points.)

Starr's appointment is generally regarded by Pepperdine and the broader legal community as a boon for the law school. It's widely thought that he has potential to be a star in raising funds and in improving scholarship and teaching, along with attracting high-caliber faculty and students. The law school, founded in 1970, has more than 700 students and 35 professors who are tenured or on track toward earning tenure.

"Profile-wise, he's going to be great, getting our name out there," said Valerie Lopez, a third-year Pepperdine law student from Clifton, N.J. "We don't have the highest reputation in comparison to other schools here, like UCLA or USC."

Pepperdine previously offered Starr the role of dean over both its law and public policy schools in 1997, and he accepted, only to withdraw days later after the disclosure that he would leave the Whitewater probe in midstream created a furor. Starr said his change of plans had nothing to do with the public reaction, but with concerns raised by his Whitewater deputies that it would be "a premature departure" that could hurt the investigation.

Even erstwhile Starr critics such as legal ethics scholar Stephen Gillers, a professor and former vice dean at New York University's law school, say that Pepperdine was smart to hire him. In the 1990s, Gillers lambasted Starr, contending that he was unfairly politicizing the Whitewater position.

Gillers also faulted Starr and his staff for improper or excessive legal tactics, including questioning former White House intern Lewinsky without her lawyers present and repeatedly calling Lewinsky's mother to testify against her daughter.

All the same, Gillers said Starr otherwise has been an "astoundingly good lawyer" and that he would benefit Pepperdine by imparting his legal skills to students and giving the law school more exposure. "He is automatically the most famous law dean in the country," Gillers said.

One dissenter is Charles Tiefer, deputy general counsel for the House of Representatives from 1984 to 1995 and now a law professor at the University of Baltimore.

He had professional contact with Starr in the early 1990s and remembers finding him gracious -- a word often used to describe the new Pepperdine dean, even if at odds with his public image. But Tiefer said he was dismayed later on when Starr worked as a lawyer for tobacco industry interests while he was running the Whitewater investigation.

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