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Supreme Court justices are notoriously stingy with praise for the lawyers arguing before them. But Frances Forsman, a self-described “old hippie” who is the federal public defender for Nevada, won high, if indirect praise from Justice John Paul Stevens on Nov. 1. Arguing for the defendant in Whorton v. Bockting, Forsman deftly made the case that the 2004 Crawford v. Washington ruling on the confrontation clause was fundamental enough to be made retroactive. She even made a joke — a risky move, especially for a first-timer at the Court. The ability to cross-examine a witness is essential for any defendant, she said, “even if he was Duke Power Company and had every lawyer at the highest hourly rate representing him” — a reference to Sidley Austin’s Carter Phillips, who had appeared in the Environmental Defense v. Duke Energy case argued just before her. The justices were grinning. As her half hour was about to end, Stevens leaned forward and said, “May I ask you a personal question? Were you a moot court finalist?” Startled, Forsman said she was not. Stevens replied, “I attended a moot court at Notre Dame in about your year and it was an awfully good moot court.” The audience laughed, but it was clearly a compliment. “I was highly flattered,” says the 59-year-old Forsman, whose father was in the audience and whose son — Joshua Zive of Bracewell & Giuliani in D.C. — was at the counsel table with her. Also joining Forsman was Sidley Austin’s Jeffrey Green, who runs the firm’s program that preps federal defenders who argue at the high court. “She did beautifully,” says Green. “She had anticipated every question that was asked.” Among moot courts Forsman did to prepare was one at the Northwestern University School of Law’s Supreme Court clinic, launched this year in conjunction with Sidley. She also practiced at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Georgetown’s Supreme Court Institute, and Anthony Amsterdam’s class at New York University School of Law. In spite of the Sidley connections, Forsman says that when she told the joke in praise of Carter Phillips, she was not aware that he works for Sidley, where he is the managing partner of the Washington, D.C. office. “People told me later about it, and that the Court is not fond of jokes. I think I didn’t cross the line.” In preparing for her high court debut, Forsman says she was struck by how different a Supreme Court argument is from arguing at the appeals court level — which she has done ever since becoming Nevada’s federal defender in 1989. “It’s not just because it’s the big deal court,” she says. “It’s that they make the rules.” Forsman, who led the Nevada state bar a decade ago and teaches trial advocacy at UNLV’s law school, says the experience of preparing and arguing the case was “exhausting but invaluable.” And she’s not sure she’ll win even with the kudo from Stevens. Has the Stevens compliment resulted in job offers from the private sector yet? No, she says, and she probably wouldn’t say yes if they came. “I love federal defenders,” says Forsman. “It’s the best way to practice law; never any billing pressure. A great job for an old hippie like me.”
Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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