In two months, Maureen Mahoney will stand before federal appellate judges to present an impassioned defense on why Andersen's criminal conviction last year should be overturned.
It is expected to be a difficult case, especially since the accounting firm is fighting for little more than its once-stellar reputation.
Still, the veteran Washington trial lawyer is coming off one of the most significant U.S. Supreme Court cases in a generation--a case few thought she would win.
In June she represented the University of Michigan Law School in defense of its affirmative-action program for admissions. She faced long odds, considering the conservative makeup of the court and its past decisions striking down aspects of affirmative action.
"This is the only case I've ever handled where I got fan mail," said Mahoney, 48. "I also think I ended up with nine bouquets of flowers."
Few lawyers get a chance to appear before the high court. But Mahoney, a former Supreme Court law clerk, has argued 12 cases and been on the winning side 11 times. Chief Justice William Rehnquist broke with formality in a recent hearing by addressing Mahoney by her first name.
Now the northern Indiana native, who graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, is getting up to speed on the Andersen case. The firm declines to say how much she is being paid.
In June 2002, a federal jury found the firm guilty of obstruction of justice for blocking an investigation by securities regulators into the financial debacle at Enron Corp. Soon after, the 89-year-old firm ceased auditing public companies. It since has shrunk to 250 employees from its peak of 85,000 worldwide.
Andersen appealed the conviction, and oral arguments are likely to be held the week of Oct. 6 before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Even if the conviction is overturned, the accounting firm will not be resurrected. And Andersen still faces a number of shareholder suits related to Enron's collapse, seeking hundreds of millions of dollars. But an appellate victory could bolster its defense in those cases.
"It's appropriate in this situation to have top-notch talent," said Andersen spokesman Patrick Dorton.
Trial errors alleged
In its 85-page brief, Andersen argues that the trial judge made several errors, including not allowing the defense to provide evidence that the firm's Enron engagement team "preserved multiple copies of the very documents whose deletion the prosecution emphasized."
The judge also, according to the brief, allowed the prosecution to present evidence about accounting scandals at two former Andersen clients, Waste Management Inc. and Sunbeam Corp. The firm argues that this evidence was irrelevant and prejudicial. It also raises questions about jury instructions.
"The proper interpretation of obstruction of justice is certainly of great importance to corporate America," Mahoney said. "Every corporation in American has a document-retention policy."
Her courtroom accomplishments do not surprise people familiar with her. Law professors recall a "can't miss" legal scholar who was as tough as nails.
"She was blessed with an extraordinary linear mind; nothing would divert her from whatever position she was after," said Richard Epstein, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, who taught Mahoney in her first year.
She was a determined little girl too. Mahoney, a native of South Bend, Ind., fondly recalls announcing at the dinner table when she was 8 that she wanted to be a lawyer just like her father, a personal-injury attorney.
"My father told me in a very kind tone that there was no place for women in the law," she said. He wasn't being sexist, she said, but rather simply recounting his workplace experiences.
She didn't change her mind. After graduating with a political science degree from Indiana University, she arrived at the law school's Hyde Park campus, where her favorite class was, not surprisingly, about the federal court system.
After law school, she married William Crispin, who as a law student interned at her father's law firm. Mahoney began a clerkship with the late Robert Sprecher, a federal appeals court judge in Chicago. From there, she gained the prestigious clerkship for then-Associate Justice Rehnquist.
"It's an intensive year in terms of analyzing cases," she said. "You learn how to write persuasively."
Starting in 1980, she practiced at Latham & Watkins for 11 years. Her appellate work was noticed by the U.S. solicitor general's office, which represents the federal government before the Supreme Court. In 1991, then-Solicitor General Kenneth Starr hired her.
Nomination to bench
While there, she honed her oral-argument skills in eight appearances before the high court. Then in 1992, the elder George Bush nominated her--at the extraordinarily young age of 37--for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
But Mahoney, a Republican, never got confirmed, as her nomination got caught up in the presidential election year. After Bill Clinton was elected, her nomination died.
Disappointed, Mahoney returned to Latham. She does not rule out another shot at being a judge.
The affirmative-action victory should not hurt her chances. Because of her Republican ties, she was viewed as an unlikely defender of the law school's racial diversity policies.
Mahoney said politics had nothing to do with her taking the challenging case. "I'm an advocate," she said. "I'm not an ideologue."
Her experience and familiarity with the high court showed during oral arguments on April 1, observers said.
Mahoney held her ground while Justice Antonin Scalia peppered her with questions.
Having "decided to create an elite law school," Scalia said, Michigan now was complaining that in order to achieve diversity it needed to ignore "the Constitution's prohibition of distribution on the basis of race." What was so important about having a "super-duper law school?" asked Scalia.
Mahoney replied, "I don't think there's anything in this court's cases that suggest that the law school has to make an election between academic excellence and racial diversity."
Her supporters marveled at her poise. She didn't flinch when Rehnquist called her by her first name.
Opposing counsel, Kirk O. Kolbo of Minneapolis, said, "I suppose it's an advantage at some level to have the court familiar with you."
That familiarity didn't help Mahoney; Rehnquist wrote the minority opinion.
Born: Aug. 28, 1954, South Bend, Ind.
Education: B.A., political science, Indiana University; J.D., University of Chicago Law School
Experience: joined the Washington, D.C., law office of Latham & Watkins in 1980; in 1991 joined U.S. solicitor general's office; returned to Latham in 1993 as partner leading the firm's appellate and constitutional practice
Family: married to attorney William Crispin. Two children.
Today's Headlines Newsletter
A digest of essential news, insight and analysis from L.A. Times editors.