News & Politics

Bernard Cohen, Who Argued Loving v. Virginia Before the Supreme Court, Has Died

The case ended laws against interracial marriage and influenced the court's 2015 gay-marriage decision.

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Bernard Cohen, one of the lawyers who successfully argued against racist laws prohibiting interracial marriage in the Supreme Court’s landmark Loving v. Virginia case, died from Parkinson’s disease on October 12 in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Not long after he graduated from Georgetown Law, Cohen was one of two volunteer attorneys of the ACLU who defended Mildred and Richard Loving in a case that spanned nearly a decade, resulting in the court reversing any laws that would prohibit their union.

The Lovings were a quiet couple who simply wanted to live together in the state as man and wife. As Cohen said in the 1967 oral arguments: “No one can articulate it better than Richard Loving when he said to me, ‘Mr. Cohen, tell the Court I love my wife and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.'” They married in DC in the summer of 1958 and within two months, police broke into their home and arrested them in the middle of the night, putting a then-pregnant Mildred Loving in jail for weeks. The couple began working with Cohen and his co-counsel Philip Hirschkop in 1963. (Comedian and actor Nick Kroll, a Georgetown alum himself, played Cohen in the 2016 film Loving.)

“When I first met the Lovings, I expressed the opinion that this was a major civil-rights case that would end up before the Supreme Court,” Cohen told Washingtonian in 2016 in an oral history of the Loving’s legal battle. “Mr. Loving’s jaw dropped.”

That case would also be cited as precedent in the 2015 Supreme Court ruling Obergefell v. Hodges,  which legalized same-sex marriage. “I would say the effect of Loving on gay marriage is a major institutional decision in American constitutional law,” Cohen told Washingtonian. After the 1967 decision, Cohen remained close to the Loving family, and he was with Mildred Loving when she died in her home in 2008, according to the Washington Post.

Read more about the Lovings’s journey and Cohen’s work here:

Rosa is a senior editor at Bitch Magazine. She’s written for Washingtonian and Smithsonian magazine.