In Nevada’s legal world, there’s room for more ‘first females’

The first time I wrote about Las Vegas attorney Ruth Cohen was in 1978, when she became the first female federal prosecutor in Nevada’s history.

At the time, it seemed like an overdue female first. But in Nevada, the ’70s and ’80s were the decades when women started increasing their numbers in the state’s legal world. Before then, female attorneys were rarities.

Nevada Lawyer asked me to write about Cohen for its March issue celebrating Women’s History Month. Part of this column was first published in the State Bar’s magazine. The edition just out made me realize how many of the women on the “first female” list were women I wrote about and, frankly, forgot they were trailblazers.

Can you name the first woman on the U.S. District Court bench in Nevada? Johnnie Rawlinson in 1998. She’s also the first African-American woman to sit on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Who was the first female chief justice of the Nevada Supreme Court? Miriam Shearing in 1997. To get there, she started as the first woman elected as a state District Court judge in 1982.

Frankie Sue Del Papa is a twofer. She became the first female secretary of state in 1987 and the first female attorney general in 1991.

Linda Riegle became the first female U.S. bankruptcy judge in 1988, and the next year Franny Forsman became the first female federal public defender, and both still hold those jobs.

The first female U.S. attorney for Nevada? Kathryn Landreth in 1993.

Cohen left New Jersey for Nevada because a girlfriend had told her there were more opportunities for young lawyers in Las Vegas, especially for women. That turned out to be true for Cohen.

The pretty, feisty 27-year-old with a raucous laugh arrived here in 1976 and, after passing the Nevada bar, became the fourth woman ever hired in the Clark County district attorney’s office.

In 1978, U.S. Attorney Mahlon Brown named her the first female federal prosecutor in Nevada’s history, relying on a recommendation from prosecutor Lawrence Leavitt, now a federal magistrate.

“I had confidence in her, and it had nothing to do with her gender; she made a strong impression,” Leavitt said. “Ruth had a tough-guy New Jersey exterior but inside was quite soft and sensitive. That’s why it was easy to look at her as an excellent prospect for the U.S. attorney’s office.”

“I decided that rather than be a radical feminist as I had been in New Jersey, I thought it was best to shut up and do the job and gain people’s trust that way,” Cohen said.

Her most complex cases were multimillion-dollar scams involving fraudulent land developers, slot cheats and counterfeit operations.

Cohen was the first federal prosecutor to suspect there was a scheme involving doctors and lawyers in personal injury cases, although she did not prosecute the three cases that ended in convictions.

In January, Cohen opened a law firm with another former prosecutor, Paul Padda, whose parents emigrated from India. Cohen & Padda is not a first, but it’s a rarity, one of a few law firms owned and operated by a woman and a minority member.

Female prosecutors aren’t as rare today, when 30 percent of Nevada’s lawyers are women.

Clark County District Attorney David Roger said that out of 121 attorneys in his office, 54 are women, or 45 percent.

U.S. Attorney Dan Bogden said that out of the 50 federal prosecutors in his office statewide, 17 are women, or 34 percent.

Isn’t the “first female” list in Nevada’s legal community about finished?

Come to think of it, Gloria Navarro became the first Hispanic woman on the U.S. District Court last year.

Guess there’s still room for more legal firsts for Nevada women.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.

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