Cohen was 39, and a one-time salesperson and
marketer, when she applied to Pace University
School of Law in 1995. She was interested in civil
rights law, and the school’s catalog promoted
Professor McLaughlin as a social justice lawyer.
She signed up for his class.
“The first day was about federal statute 42
U.S.C., section 1983, under which you can sue a
local government individual that you think has
violated a constitutional right,” she remembers.
“That was my epiphany. You can have a career
doing cases under that statute. That’s what I
A few weeks into the class, McLaughlin
announced he had a new civil rights case and
needed interns, so she sent him her résumé. She
assumed she was a lock. “I thought, he’s going to
say, ‘That student is very engaged.’ It never even
occurred to me that he wouldn’t. I figured: I’m
smart, I’m dedicated, I’m mature. It’ll happen.”
But McLaughlin had a different point of view.
“She sat directly in front of me and she always
had her hand up,” he remembers. “I was like, ‘No
way I’m going to hire her.’ She was annoying. But
I had to give her an interview.”
He made it a quick one. Before Cohen knew it,
McLaughlin was perfunctorily thanking her for
“In the distance from the chair to the door,” she
says, “I’m feeling despair. What am I going to do?
This is the only person at this law school who can
teach me to do what I want to do, and it’s clear he
has no interest in doing that, now or ever.
“Then I’m angry. That arrogant ass, who does
he think he is? Even if he doesn’t like me, I’m
a student here. I’m showing a commitment
to this work. I’m obviously not the stupidest
person in the world, so suck it up and give me an
She stopped at the door. “I turn to him and
say, ‘Oh, Professor, I’m just curious. Have you
heard about the case involving the shooting of
the African-American man in a deli parking lot in
He perked up. The family of the victim had
already contacted him about representation.
“What do you know about that?” he asked.
“I live in that village,” she said. “Every weekend,
family and friends of the man who was shot go
and demonstrate in front of the deli to keep
visibility on the case and put pressure on the
district attorney to prosecute the police officer
who shot him. I go every Saturday and march with
“Miss Cohen, come back in,” he told her. “Sit
When they met in his law school class, she thought
he was arrogant and he thought she was a pain.
Five years later, this.
acquitted of all charges,” McLaughlin says. “One
of them who basically confessed was convicted of
simple assault, served nine months of a sentence
and got out on good behavior. I was part of the
National Anti-Klan Network. So [CCR] came in to
sue these people.
“I was in Chattanooga [off and on] for years. I
lived in this open-air hotel/motel, black-owned,
on East Ninth Street, now Martin Luther King
Boulevard, same street where these women were
shot. ... And we find this statute that was passed
in 1872. It was called the Ku Klux Klan Act. It was
passed to give a federal lawsuit cause of action
to victims of Klan violence. We tried the case
and won—got over half a million dollars and a
judgment. It was the first case using that statute
to get a money judgment against the Ku Klux
Klan. It was my career case.”
After their fateful interview at Pace, Cohen and
McLaughlin worked together on the Dobbs Ferry
case. On Sept. 1, 2001, they were married; they
hung a shingle in the Bronx the following May.
In one of their first cases, they represented a
group of New Rochelle homeowners and business
owners who were resisting IKEA’s plan to level
a block in the City Park neighborhood to build a
store; IKEA eventually abandoned the project.
They represented a group of business owners who
were fighting a proposed baseball stadium in
Yonkers. “It was the stupidest idea I ever heard,”
McLaughlin says. “First, the plan was to eliminate
And that’s how it began.
Cohen is now the professor of that civil rights
class at Pace. “When I teach Loving v. Virginia,”
she says, “it never ceases to reach me ... that
when that Supreme Court case was decided,
where I was living then, it would have been a
crime for us to have been married.”
THEY CAME TO THE LAW THROUGH
Cohen’s father was a psychiatrist whose
interests included the impact of racism on mental
health. During the 1960s, he was the director
of the psychosomatic medicine division at Duke
University, so the family moved to North Carolina.
In one of her earliest memories, her parents
pulled into a gas station, and through the garage
bay she saw a red door marked “COLORED.”
Both parents, she says, made it “very clear to us
how that was unacceptable.”
McLaughlin, who was born in 1953, says racism
didn’t directly affect him much growing up. “I’m
from New York City,” he says. “Worrying about
what some white kid was going to do to me, it
was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I had no fear of
But he was fascinated by the law. By age 10,
he was reading law books. “William Kunstler
was a hero to me,” he says. In high school, the
Chicago Seven trial was all over the news. “It
was the binding and gagging of Bobby Seale in
the courtroom that made me say, ‘Well there’s
something seriously wrong with this country. ...
I’ve got to get involved.’”
During his second year at Harvard Law,
Kunstler himself came to speak. “He’s saying stuff
like, ‘I need black lawyers to get involved in this
kind of work with us because we can’t do it on
our own.’ The whole room just drained away [for
me]. ... Bill’s up there on the stage with all these
Black Panther types and Native Americans with
him. And little old me. I was a really shy kid. But I
inch my way up and say, ‘Mr. Kunstler? I’ve been
following your career ever since I was a kid and I
want to do what you do.’ He looks at me and says,
‘Here’s my card. Look me up when you get back to
McLaughlin did just that and wound up
working with Kunstler at the Center for
Constitutional Rights, starting in 1978. The two
men traveled the country handling murder cases.
In 1982, some African-American women
were out on a Saturday night in Chattanooga,
Tennessee, when three Klansmen shot at them.
More than 100 shotgun pellets were found in
one woman’s legs. “Two of the Klansmen were