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When Maureen Mahoney rises to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action program on April 1, chances are good that she will have eaten a doughnut at the Court cafeteria a few minutes before. “When I swam as a kid, my coach told me I needed sugar in me if I wanted to compete,” says Mahoney, head of the appellate and constitutional practice at Latham & Watkins. But with or without confections, there is little doubt that Mahoney, 48, will be keenly competitive in arguing what could be one of the most significant Supreme Court cases of the last half-century: Grutter v. Bollinger, No. 02-241, in which a white applicant claims that her race cost her admission to the University of Michigan’s law school. “My goal is to win my cases, every one of them,” says Mahoney. What is somewhat unexpected, however, is the side Mahoney is on, given her strong Republican ties. Her competitive zeal will be aimed at preserving affirmative action, anathema to the Bush administration and to the Court’s conservative wing, including her one-time boss Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Mahoney will face off against plaintiff Barbara Grutter’s lawyer, Kirk Kolbo of Maslon Edelman Borman & Brand in Minneapolis, and Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who filed an amicus brief on behalf of Grutter. Kolbo and Olson will also argue in the companion undergraduate case, Gratz v. Bollinger, No. 02-516. Arguing for the university in Gratz will be John Payton of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. A veteran of 11 high court arguments, Mahoney is known as a skilled appellate advocate, unruffled and poised in the face of the torrent of questions that invariably come from the members of the nation’s highest court. She was on the winning side in 10 of her cases. But the high court is familiar terrain for Mahoney for another reason; she clerked for then-Associate Justice Rehnquist in 1979, a year after the Court handed down the ruling that still governs the affirmative action debate: Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Mahoney counts the day that Rehnquist called her to offer her the clerkship as “the highlight of my entire career.” It was the first of many professional successes. Born in South Bend, Ind., Mahoney has known since age 8 that she wanted to be a lawyer. The reason was simple: Her father was a lawyer, specializing in personal injury work, and she wanted to emulate him. But soon after she announced her intentions, she recalls fondly, “my father told me in a very nice tone that there was no place for women in the law.” His admonition did not dissuade her, and after graduating from the University of Indiana, Mahoney dove right into the intellectual pressure cooker of the University of Chicago Law School. The faculty there encouraged her to seek a clerkship, so she went to work for 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Robert Sprecher, a friend of Justice John Paul Stevens’. From there she went to Rehnquist’s chambers. For an exhilarating, exhausting year, Mahoney worked closely with the then-associate justice and two other law clerks. “He is a very engaging man, very warm,” Mahoney says of Rehnquist. “He would take us for walks around the block to delve into some issue that was bothering him.” O’Melveny & Myers partner James Asperger, who clerked with Mahoney that year, recalls that “Rehnquist always loved her work. They had an extraordinary relationship.” But just as Mahoney ignored her father’s advice about going into law, she also did not heed Rehnquist’s counsel when the time came for her to leave the Court. “He always encouraged clerks to go back where they came from, but I stayed in Washington,” says Mahoney. Her main reason was that she wanted to be with her husband, lawyer William Crispin, now a member of Crispin & Brenner in D.C. When she arrived in 1980 at the D.C. office of Latham & Watkins — its first outside Los Angeles — the firm comprised about 150 lawyers. (It now weighs in at 1,500 lawyers with 21 offices worldwide.) Mahoney wanted to be a litigator, but had not yet decided to specialize in appellate work. And at the time, few firms, if any, had specialized appellate practices. But she was able to work on both trials and appeals at a firm that allowed her to grow. “The culture here is very supportive and collegial,” she says. Looking around her corner office in downtown D.C., Mahoney adds, “This is my home.” She gravitated toward appellate work but eventually realized that if she really wanted to specialize in that field — especially before the Supreme Court — she would benefit from a stint in the solicitor general’s office. President Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general, Charles Fried, offered her a job as an associate, but she demurred. In 1991, when Fried’s successor, Kenneth Starr, who was appointed by the first President Bush, offered her a higher-level deputy’s position — one of four in the office — she said yes. Mahoney argued eight cases before the Supreme Court over two years, and she was planning to argue many more. “It was a fabulous job,” she said. But then came another turning point in her career. Bush administration officials approached her about a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, where Mahoney lives. Even though it meant turning away from appellate advocacy, Mahoney enthusiastically said yes. “It was the highest honor and the most important work I could imagine. You are face to face with the public. It is a very important part of the overall judicial system,” she says. She soon became “very invested” in the idea of becoming a judge, as she puts it. Sitting judges in the district invited her to come by the courthouse, and she was even asked to pick out carpeting for her new chambers. But then political reality set in. She had been nominated in April 1992 — a presidential election year, when the confirmation process traditionally slows to a halt. By the time Democrat Bill Clinton was elected, Mahoney says, “I was left in a long line” behind many other Republican nominees who were never confirmed. “It was definitely the low point of my career,” she says. “I never had a hearing, and there was never any opposition that I knew of, so it wasn’t ugly. It was just disappointing.” Someday, she says, “I would possibly be interested in a judgeship again.” Soon after the nomination died, she returned to Latham. There, she plunged into appellate work, growing the specialty to the point where she estimates that 40 lawyers in the firm are part of her group. Her biggest victory came representing the U.S. House of Representatives in its Supreme Court challenge against the use of sampling by the U.S. Census Bureau. But apart from that, while active in many other courts, she has had relatively little face time at the Supreme Court in recent years. It is still a fact of life that few of the private attorneys who regularly argue before the Court are women. “I think it’s because very few women yet have the credentials that general counsels are looking for when they want someone to argue there,” Mahoney says. “You know, the clerkships, the experience in the solicitor general’s office. But that will change.” When the University of Michigan added Mahoney to its legal team defending affirmative action, some Court-watchers were surprised, given Mahoney’s Republican ties. She’s going up against the Bush administration, which argues that the Michigan admissions policies amount to racial quotas. But the university wanted a lawyer with deep Supreme Court experience to complement Wilmer’s Payton, and university lawyers interviewed several veteran advocates. Those who know Mahoney say they are not surprised that Michigan picked her — or that she said yes. “There’s no doubt she’s a Republican,” says Asperger. “But she’s very balanced. I don’t know what she personally believes about affirmative action, but she is an advocate and a professional. She’ll do an outstanding job.” Mahoney declines to discuss the case, but says she does not think her advocacy will hurt her chances for a judgeship down the line. “The case has been one of the highlights of my career,” she says. “I would hope that the administration would respect the work that I have done on this very difficult and important issue.”

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