CHURCH OF FALLS, Va. (AP) – Bernard S. Cohen, which won a historic case that led to the US Supreme CourtHe died of the rejection of laws that prohibit interracial marriage and later had a successful political career as a state legislator. He was 86 years old.
Cohen and legal colleague Phil Hirschkop represented Richard and Mildred Loving, a white man and black woman who were convicted in Virginia in 1959 for illegally cohabiting as husband and wife and sentenced to leave the state for 25 years.
Cohen and Hirschkop represented the Lovings while they sought to have their conviction overturned. It resulted in Supreme CourtUnanimous decision of Loving v. 1967 Virginia, which declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional.
Bernard Cohen he had a great sense of humor and liked to ride a motorcycle and fly planes, said his son.
“He was a little risky, and I think that is in line with the risks he took in his younger professional life,” Bennett Cohen said.
Bernard Cohen and Hirschkop were voluntary lawyers for ACLU just a few years after law school when they took over the case. Mildred Loving was referred to the ACLU by then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, whom she had written asking for help.
“We would pinch ourselves and say, ‘Do we realize what we are doing? ’We are dealing with one of the most important constitutional law cases ever presented to the Court, ” Cohen said in a documentary about the case that aired on HBO in 2012.
After devising a strategy for doing so, the judge who sentenced the Lovings categorically rejected the request for the conviction to be overturned, giving lawyers a decision that could be appealed.
“Almighty God created the white, black, yellow, Malaysian and red races, and placed them on separate continents and, if it were not for the interference in His arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages,” wrote the judge while maintaining the verdict. “The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend the races to mix.”
“He was very country, kind of rude”, Cohen told the Associated Press in 1992. “He just said, ‘Tell them that I don’t understand why if a man loves a woman he can’t marry her, no matter what color she is.'”
Following the striking case, Cohen continued a legal career, but also turned to politics. He was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1979, representing the Alexandria area, and served eight terms.
During a 16-year career in the state Chamber of Delegates, Cohen he ran as “a shameless liberal” and delighted to present controversial legislation. In 1983, he sponsored a nuclear freeze resolution that won approval in the House, but was paralyzed in the Senate after a Reagan government official testified against it. Cohen attributed the defeat to the “Defense Department freaks”.
He successfully defended legislation banning smoking in public places at a time when the tobacco industry was a political power in Richmond.
Brian Moran, who managed Cohen in the legislature and is now Virginia’s secretary of public security and homeland security, said Cohen he chose to retire in 1995 because he was tired of campaigning – arthritis made the handshake painful and he hated to knock on doors after being attacked by a dog.
He endorsed Moran as his successor because he wanted a lawyer to fill the chair.
“He was a real cool eagle. He respected the law and wanted a lawyer to succeed him, ”said Moran. “He was a distinguished legislator, extremely brilliant.”
His defense of the Loving has rarely emerged in his political campaigns, and Moran said that many of his legislative colleagues were unaware of this.
Bennett Cohen he said his impression was that the civil rights cases of the 1960s were not in people’s immediate minds in the 1980s and 1990s, when their father was active in politics. The Loving affair, however, has had a major resurgence in public interest in the past decade, partly driven by the 2016 Hollywood documentary and feature film “Loving,” but even more so by the parallels people have seen between the Loving affair and the debate on same-sex marriages.
Bennett Cohen noted that on Monday, the day her father died, vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris spoke about the Loving case during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett.
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