Stanley Cohen is a lawyer who has garnered a lot of hate in the past. The reason for that is somewhat understandable, although not entirely justifiable.. He has defended members of Hamas, Hezbollah, the Syrian Government, Bin Laden’s son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, and others who were charged with nefarious terrorism related charges. But now, Cohen is facing a sentence of 18 months in prison after accepting a plea deal in April to impeding and obstructing the IRS by failing to report $3 million in lawyer fee income.
According to a statement on his website http://www.istanleycohen.org , he made the decision to accept a plea deal because of costs of over $600,000, psychological tolls on his family and friends, and the fact that traveling abroad has become “impractical” for him. “Make no mistake about it,” he writes on his website, “this plea will not change my commitment to truth, justice and resistance. Nor should it be seen as acquiescence to the naive and liberal notion that this government and others and their respective criminal justice systems work or are just.”
Cohen claims that the United States Government is conducting a witch hunt because of his politics and says that the Justice Department had “been trying to curtail my practice and that law enforcement has been investigating me actively for years.”
There can be no denying that there might be a reason why the United States Government might want to stop him from practicing law. Cohen has been described—and for that matter self-describes himself on his twitter page—as a “certified self-loathing Jew”. While this charge (or self-appropriation) may or may not be unfounded (though I believe it is), the fact is that in defending these very unpopular clients he, in one way or another, has earned this dislike and even hate from many Americans who know very little about him. In addition to Cohen’s history of defending controversial clients, he has also said quite a few unpopular things including calling Israel a “terrorist state”.
But while it’s easy to hate someone like Cohen, it is much more difficult to understand why he does what he does. What his background indicates is that Cohen—above all else—is an activist, not just a lawyer.
Cohen dabbled in activism at a young age when he became involved in anti-Vietnam demonstrations during high school and then Long Island University where, according to him, he was thrown out because of his demonstrations. After college, Cohen went to work for Vista (kind of like a domestic peace corps) in New York City and became a community organizer. His other jobs prior to his lawyer days included running a youth drug program in Westchester, New York and working as an administrator for an anti-poverty agency. After he go this law degree he became a protégé to famed leftist lawyer, William Kunstler.
From this kind of background, a line can be seen where Cohen would eventually defend unpopular individuals who he chooses to defend for political reasons. He has said in the past, “If I can’t support the politics of political clients, I don’t take the case.”
Stanley Cohen was kind enough to talk with me over skype. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:
Kevin Limiti: Could you talk a little bit about what’s been going on since you reached a settlement in April?
Practicing law, fighting cases, trying cases, doing appeals, seeing new clients, getting on with my life. It’s in a state of limbo until October–perhaps–until I find out what’s going to happen.
It’s been a bit of a toll on you and your family, correct?
Well, this has been going on for a decade or longer. When you start factoring in finances, when you start factoring in time, when you start factoring in debt, when you start factoring in taking away from work you have to do, when you start factoring in stress and strain on the family, you reach a point of diminishing returns. Especially when I face the prospect of—who knows—three or four years of trials and potential appeals and issues coming up. Especially when you consider impeding the IRS code is not a crime in New York State so it does not automatically result in any sanctions against me in regard to my license. I just decided to put an end to it. It had gone on long enough and it could have gone on another five years. Five or six hundred thousand dollars in legal fees and accounting fees with four hundred thousand owed for a small political law practice. I just made a decision to end it
You called the charges against you part of a witch hunt. Do you have any evidence to back up this claim?
Besides the fact that I’ve been representing Palestinian clients since 1995, that every time they’ve been interviewed by federal agents my name has popped up. Besides the fact that the government cherry picked the judge that I ended up in front of. Besides me being prosecuted by a prosecutor that I beat at a large case in 1995. Besides the fact that I’ve been indicted in the northern district of New York for impeding the IRS code and I’m not a tax payer in the northern district of New York. Besides the fact that the Department of Justice has spent years going after lawyers and activists. Besides the fact that the head of the head of the IRS enforcement division recently was held in contempt in front of congress because he refused to speak further about a previous acknowledgment that they were targeting political groups and opponents of the administration, yeah I got nothing else to point at them.
What was your primary reason for practicing law?
I’ve reached a point as an organizer and a social worker where I decided I could be more affective challenging issues in government as an attorney that I could not as an organizer and a social worker. I decided not to move up but to move on
What problems and advantages do you see in using the US justice system as a tool for political activism?
Well you have no choice because particularly in this administration which is indelibly embedded to the notion that using the Department of Justice as a means of enforcing political dogma and as a political tool, you’re really going to challenge this administration and the Bush administration and I suspect the next one, on policies that are uniquely directed and focused on dissidents on whistle blowers on journalists, and on activists, you have no choice but to use, among your many other tools for fighting back, the courts.
Speaking of Obama, what do you have against him besides the obvious?
I have known of him since his early days where he suggested he was a community organizer when in fact he worked for a coalition of churches that were involved in displacing poor and low-income African-American persons to develop for the churches condominiums for upper-middle class African-American business people. Other than that, I have followed his career with interest. It’s largely been a career based upon one thought after the next. He’s never been anywhere long enough for a track record to follow him. You take a look at his positions both in state legislature in Illinois, his positions in US senate, and certainly his positions in the United States Presidency, and he’s turned out to be, in my opinion, one of the largest crafted frauds that’s ever occupied the White House.
How come you choose to represent so many clients who many in the United States would call terrorists?
I represent political people. I don’t pick clients based on popularity contests. I don’t represent folks based on how many people support them or how many Americans consider them terrorists. I spent many, many, many years representing a lot of folks who I would consider to be freedom fighters, who could be dissidents, who could be human rights activists, who could be people who have been targeted by this administration on the basis of their politics, their beliefs, and their work.
Do you consider as much an activist as a lawyer?
I don’t think you can be an affective lawyer unless your also an activists. ‘Activist’ has a lot of connotations but the most important part of being a lawyer especially a litigator is working to affect change both outside and inside the courtroom. A lot of my work, particularily more so over the course of ten or fifteen years, has been involved in political organizing and activism and the like. I’ve been involved in representing clients in the middle east, South Asia, Africa, and the Gulf. A lot of it has to do with class action litigation and affirmations of individuals, organizing groups, organizing conferences. It’s much more of a classic activism role overseas than in the United States. I speak out a lot in the United States, I represent a lot of political people in the United States, but I’m not involved in a whole lot of organizing sort-of class based work and institutions of change the way I am overseas.