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Published: Saturday, 2/23/2002

Assistant attorney general says arguing before high court is `cool'

William Rehnquist. Sandra Day O'Connor. Bo Derek?

Ohio Assistant Attorney General Judith French encountered some big names earlier this week when she went before the U.S. Supreme Court to defend Ohio's private-school tuition voucher program.

She never would have guessed, though, that Ms. Derek, a prominent Republican supporter and star of the movie 10, would be among them.

“It was just that kind of day,” Ms. French told a crowd of more than 150 people yesterday at the University of Toledo's law school.

She provided a behind-the-scenes look at oral arguments before the Supreme Court just two days after she had a chance to make her case. The court has been asked to decide if parents can use publicly financed grants to send their children to religious schools.

At the center of the issue is a 6-year-old Ohio program that offers mostly low-income Cleveland parents vouchers of up to $2,250 for use at private or religious schools. More than 4,000 Cleveland students accept vouchers rather than attend public schools, and 99 percent of them attend religious schools.

Ms. French, 39, was given the case a year ago after the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower federal court ruling striking down the program. A leading voucher supporter ridiculed the selection of a “rookie” to take the case, even though she had argued before the court once before.

Ms. French said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the case's outcome. Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy are expected to support the state, she said, and Justice O'Connor, a swing vote, “seems to be with us.” Justice Stephen Breyer, another swing vote, was hard to read, she said.

The former deputy director of legal affairs at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spoke little about her actual legal arguments.

“I'll just tell you what a cool experience it was,” she said.

Ms. French proceeded to give law students the lowdown on what it's like to interact with several of the justices.

“Justice Rehnquist is kind of grumpy. He's a stickler,” she said.

“Justice Scalia is the most entertaining. But if you're not on his side, look out,” she continued.

The nicest one is Justice O'Connor, Ms. French said, explaining, “Even if she's giving it to you, she still comes off kind.”

As for former Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, whose firm was hired by the state to assist in the case, she only had praise.

“As an advocate and a person to work with, he is truly remarkable,” she said.

The justices are expected to rule on the case - the most talked about on this year's docket - by early summer.

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