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Ohio State alumna, now a federal judge, returns to campus for policy simulation

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Colleen McMahon is returning to Ohio State to participate in a policy simulation put on by the Moritz College of Law. Credit: Lantern File Photo

Colleen McMahon is returning to Ohio State to participate in a policy simulation put on by the Moritz College of Law. Credit: Lantern File Photo

Aspiring actress Colleen McMahon arrived to Ohio State ready to take on the stage in the theatre program. Although she didn’t quite make it to Broadway, the one-time theatre major still managed to make a name for herself in New York City.

McMahon shifted her focus to political science, and is now the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

“When my colleague and I walked in the door of that class I taught, the first time I met Judge McMahon, it was like a lot of twinkly stars and one bright sun,” said Col. Rick Sinnreich, McMahon’s former professor and long-time friend. “That’s how far she stood out in a class of 15 or 20 very good students.”

Friday and Saturday, McMahon and Sinnreich will be returning to Ohio State as participants in the Moritz College of Law’s annual National Security Simulation, put on as an opportunity for students of different professional backgrounds and programs to gain political and policy experience.

Given her experience as a judge, McMahon will be playing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act judge. According to Dakota Rudesill, a professor at Mortiz and the director and designer of the simulation, she is a key part of the process as a practitioner participant.

“A lot of very important cases end up getting handled by the Southern District of New York, and she’s the chief judge of that court, so she is an enormously important legal actor in the United States legal system and someone of enormous experience (and) enormous reputation,” said Rudesill.

McMahon’s role as a judge, both in real life and in the simulation, got its start after she completed her undergraduate degree at OSU  in 1973. She would go on to Harvard Law school at the encouragement of her father and Sinnreich.

“She was planning to go to graduate school, and her father and I convinced her that that was the wrong thing to do, that she needed to be elsewhere, that she needed to go into law and go to a top-flight law school,” Sinnreich said. “So between us, we talked her into going to Harvard. She was a stand-out at Harvard.”

In 1973, McMahon said, people went to law school for three reasons: to practice law, to attain professional status without going to medical school, or they just couldn’t think of anything else to do.  She took the advice of her father and friend and went on to become the first female partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, New York’s top litigation law firm.

“If you’re the first anything, it gets you noticed, I was the first woman elected to partnership in litigation and it was a calling card,” said McMahon. “While I did not become a partner because I was a woman there, I became a partner in spite of the fact that I was a woman.”

After almost two decades of practicing law, McMahon went for  a judgeship, and with the backing of Alfonse D’Amato, a former New York senator, was appointed to the bench in New York state in 1995, and was nominated for a federal judgeship in 1998.

“You can’t expect someone to come and wave a magic wand over you and you become a judge,” McMahon said.  “It’s one of those things that you could want to do and want to do and you have absolutely no control whether in the end you’ll be able to do it.”

Policy simulations are nothing new for McMahon. As part of Sinnreich’s doctoral work, he had attempted to design a similar simulation at  the OSU’s political science department more than 40 years ago. In her time as an undergraduate, McMahon worked on the project as a research assistant.

McMahon said with complexity of Sinnreich’s proposed program, the technology at the time could not support the idea. By coincidence, Rudesill had the same idea, and now McMahon and Sinnreich will be able to witness their work come to life.

“Forty-five years after we tried and failed repeatedly to make a national-security simulation and a computer-interactive simulation work, Rick Sinnreich and I are going to come in from New York and Oklahoma City, and we’re going to play the game that we tried to write,” said McMahon.

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