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Attorney in landmark case remembers representing the Lovings, a Caroline County interracial couple
A plaque and quill memorialize Cohen's appearance before the United States Supreme Court, where he successfully argued against Virginia's law barring interracial marriage.
MIKE MORONES/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
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"One day, I was doing research in another case and came across this line: 'A suspended sentence is always in the breast of the court.' A bulb lit up in my head."
He realized that being "in the breast of the court" meant that if a ruling was suspended, the case remained alive. Bazile, in imposing his 25-year banishment, had suspended enforcement of his one-year prison sentence.
"This is great!" Cohen exulted.
In November 1964, Cohen filed a two-page motion with Bazile asking that the case be reconsidered. Cohen wrote that the banishment of the Lovings violated Virginia's constitutional protection against "cruel and unusual punishment."
Meanwhile, Cohen's young colleague, Philip J. Hirschkop, a liberal firebrand and a veteran of the freedom marches in Mississippi, joined the case. He suggested that they file an appeal in federal court based on an 1865 federal law that set up special three-judge courts to enforce newly passed amendments to the U.S. Constitution protecting the rights of blacks after the Civil War.
The two lawyers took the case to both the 4th U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond and the state Court of Appeals.
It was a bold move, lawyer Stewart C. Economou told the Legal Times in a recent article. "If you knew Virginia back in the early '60s, to have a couple of Jewish guys from New York come down here and take on this case, that took a lot of courage," said Economou, who knows both Cohen and Hirschkop.
Were there repercussions? "I received some nasty phone calls, and the KKK attacked me editorially, but I never felt physically threatened," Cohen recalled.
With the case back in the public eye, the Lovings were allowed to quietly return to their home in Caroline County.
In January 1965, Bazile issued his final statement on the case. He said that God had created people in different colors and placed them on different continents to show "that He did not intend for the races to mix."
"That was a 'no' for us," Cohen recalled, "but it formally reopened the case. We finally had something to appeal."