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Bernard Cohen, lawyer who took on mixed marriage law, dies at 86

Bernard Cohen/Photo courtesy of Karen Cohen

Bernard Cohen/Photo courtesy of Karen Cohen

Former Del. Bernard S. Cohen, who won a landmark case that led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of laws forbidding interracial marriage and later went on to a successful political career as a state legislator, died Oct. 19 of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 86.

He and Phillip Hirschkop represented Richard and Mildred Loving, a white man and Black woman who were convicted in Virginia in 1959 of illegally cohabiting as man and wife and ordered to leave the state for 25 years.

Del. Cohen and Hirschkop represented the Lovings as they sought to have their conviction overturned. It resulted in the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1967 Loving v. Virginia ruling, which declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional.

Both lawyers were ACLU volunteers not long out of law school when they pursued the case.

Mildred Loving was referred to the ACLU by then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to whom she had written seeking assistance.

“We would pinch ourselves and say, ‘Do we realize what we’re doing?’ We’re handling one of the most important constitutional law cases ever to come before the court,” Del. Cohen said in a documentary about the case that aired on HBO in 2012.

Tom Curcio, who was a law partner of Del. Cohen’s, shared a remembrance: After a showing of that documentary, “I was speaking with Bernie when a young African-American man and his white wife came up and introduced themselves to Bernie, with the husband thanking Bernie for all he did as, but for Loving, he would not have been able to marry the woman he loved.”

Curcio took their picture with Del. Cohen, telling him that he could not believe what just happened. He added, “With the usual gleam in his eyes, Bernie smiled and said, ‘Tom, you would not believe how often that happens’”

Bennett Cohen, the delegate’s son,told the AP that on Oct. 19, the day his father died, vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris talked about the Loving case during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett.

After winning a major decision relatively early, one has to wonder what to do for an encore.

Bernie Cohen focused on building his Alexandria law firm and representing injured persons and those who civil rights had been violated.

Curcio reeled off a list of some of the lawyers who had been partners with the firm: “my fellow VTLA Past President Sandra Rohrstaff and other past and present leaders of the bar, including Judge Gerald Bruce Lee, Magistrate Judge T. Rawles Jones, Rob Dunn, Robert Hall, Phillip Hirschkop, J. Frederick Sinclair and Herbert Rosenblum (to name just a few).”

Karen Cohen, the delegate’s daughter and a lawyer herself, shared a piece in which Del. Cohen detailed his post-Loving career.

A little over a decade after the landmark, Del. Cohen entered electoral politics, gaining a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 1979.  He served eight terms, retiring in 1995 after he tired of campaigning.

He detailed some of the significant legislation he sponsored:

• The Health Care Decisions Act, which allows a person to write an advance medical directive.

• The Clean Indoor Act, limiting or prohibiting indoor smoking

• Legislation to permit insurance policies for long-term care coverage.

Of this last legislation, the delegate said, “My wife and I and her twin sister and husband were the first in Virginia to purchase this important insurance coverage.”

Northern Virginia lawyer Rob Dunn also provided memories of the delegate, praising him as a man who took the time to mentor young lawyers and teach them how to try a case.

Dunn said he also took care of the young lawyers financially, maintaining an investment plan for the firm and its lawyers that the delegate managed himself. 

Give Dunn the last word:

“Among the many things I learned from Bernie was the Yiddish word ‘mensch.’ It means a person of integrity and honor,” Dunn said. “Bernie not only taught me the word, he lived the word.”

He added, “Reflecting on our years in practice, I came to realize that I learned a lot about my Christian ethics from my Jewish law partner.”

Survivors include the delegate’s wife Rae, son Bennett, daughter Karen and their families.

– Paul Fletcher, with material from the Associated Press