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This Day in Legal History -- Roy Cohn

Big lawyers have big personalities, and few had as big a personality as Roy Cohn who was born on this day in New York City in 1927. Cohn’s career was spent in the Washington DC—New York axis, famous in the press for his legal and social exploits, his list of famous and infamous clients, and as the poster-boy for every stereotype of the dishonest grasping lawyer. The legal career of Roy Cohn is an object lesson on the use, and abuse, of the lawyer’s power.

Roy Cohn was born on February 20, 1927 in New York City. His father was a justice in the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court and was well connected politically. These connections, along with a precocious intelligence which allowed him to graduate from Columbia law school at age 20, paved the way for a bright legal career. Cohn’s first job (after waiting until he turned 21 to be admitted to the bar) was as an assistant U.S. Attorney in New York. He first came to prominence in his role as a prosecutor in the Rosenberg espionage trial. It was rumored at the time that Cohn convinced trial judge Irving Kaufman to sentence Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to death for their activities. It would not be the last time that Cohn’s name would be linked to back-door influence peddling.

Having made a name for himself as an expert in “subversive activities,” the name given to the anti-Communism of the 1950’s era “Red Scare”, Cohn moved to Washington, DC to become the special assistant to Attorney General James McGranery. Cohn pursued his “Red Hunting” activities in Washington, culminating in his appointment as chief-counsel of Senator Joe McCarthy’s permanent subcommittee on investigations, beating out minority counsel Robert Kennedy for the job and thus creating a hatred for each other that lasted for years.

Cohn became famous nationwide as a result of his work on, and off, the committee. He handled investigations for the committee, and with his friend G. David Schine, flew around the world investigating Army bases and embassies for evidence subversive activities. In an effort to secure special privileges for Mr. Schine who had been drafted into the Army, Cohn angered the Army. The charges and counter-charges between McCarthy and the Army resulted in the famous Army-McCarthy hearings which were televised nationally, and resulted in the decline of McCarthy’s popularity. After the hearings Cohn moved back to New York where his second legal career started.

Roy Cohn became known as the New York fixer par excellence. His client list ranged from Francis Cardinal Spellman and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York to Carmine Galante and “Fat Tony” Salerno. He was known as a ferocious advocate in the courtroom and for throwing lavish parties with A-list celebrity guests. He also became famous for racking up judicial reprimands and law suits by aggrieved clients and creditors. He was sued three times in federal court for a variety of charges and acquitted each time and was audited for 20 straight years incurring IRS liens totaling $3.18 million. Esquire magazine called him a “legal executioner.” The National Law Journal referred to Cohn as an “assault specialist.” He was not beloved by the legal community.

For all the controversy that swirled around him; including allegedly participating in an insurance scam involving the sinking of a rent yacht, having a millionaire sign a death-bed codicil making Cohn executor of his will, and eventually being disbarred, he always had lots of friends. Cohn’s friends included Barbara Walters (who he claimed to have been engaged to), William Safire, George Steinbrenner as well as numerous Democratic and Republican politicians and New York judges and lawyers.

Roy Cohn, a man who lived in the public eye, died of AIDS in 1986, a disease he long denied having. Even in death Roy Cohn could not avoid controversy and gossip.


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