PROVO — Seth Waxman served four tumultuous years as one of the country's top attorneys under President Clinton. And through the legal tiffs, he says he tried to tailor his approach after a predecessor, the late Rex E. Lee, a former president of Brigham Young University.

Waxman, the former U.S. solicitor general, said he usually comes to Utah to enjoy the skiing. But Waxman visited the state Friday to speak to graduates of Brigham Young University's J. Reuben Clark Law School.

In an interview with the Deseret News, Waxman, now a Georgetown University professor, weighed in on some of the pressing legal issues facing the nation and Utah.

Waxman said he believes the most important legal issue today is the issue of state rights versus federal rights. The results of the debate in the high court, he says, may change how the U.S. Constitution is interpreted regarding state sovereignty.

Such touchy issues as the regulation of interstate commerce and an Internet sales tax also are being debated in legal circles, he said.

Waxman, a Harvard and Yale alumnus, was approved the nation's 41st solicitor general in 1997. He practiced law for 17 years at a Washington, D.C., firm before his appointment by Clinton. Lee was appointed U.S. solicitor general by President Reagan.

During his tenure, Waxman argued 30 cases before the Supreme Court. One turned out to be a defeat for Waxman — but opened the way for Utah and other states to take on the tobacco companies and win landmark settlements.

In December 1999, Waxman argued before the high court that tobacco products should be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Ten years' worth of scientific studies pointed to the need for regulation under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

"Does it affect the structure and the function of the body? The answer seemed to be overwhelmingly yes," he said.

The high court ultimately disagreed with Waxman's arguments. But Waxman said his loss was Utah's gain.

"The FDA's research spawned suits by Utah and other states, and they made use of the FDA's research in their own suits against the tobacco companies," he said.

As part of a 26-state, multibillion-dollar settlement, Utah is projected to get $980 million over the next 25 years. To date, the state has received $64 million.

Waxman also has gone head-to-head in the courtroom with University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell over whether confessions can be used by police if no Miranda warning is given.

Cassell argued that the Miranda statute should be revised and that suspect confessions without a Miranda warning should be admitted in court. Waxman defended the familiar wording of Miranda as being ingrained in modern culture — something everyone should know by simply watching cop shows on TV.

"Every man, woman and child in this country not only knows what the Miranda warnings are, but can recite them," he said.

That argument was enough to persuade the Supreme Court to uphold the Miranda statute.

BYU attorney Tom Griffith said it was an honor to have Waxman as a speaker for BYU's aspiring attorneys, calling him one of the best solicitor generals in recent history.