- President and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center
- Open Borders advocate
- Expanded prisoners' rights supporter
- Led a suit against Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore for having placed a Ten Commandments monument in the rotunda of the state courthouse
J. Richard Cohen is the President and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), one of America’s leading leftwing pro-bono law organizations. Cohen is a graduate of Columbia University and the University of Virginia Law School. He first joined the SPLC in 1986 as its legal director. During his years with the group, Cohen has worked on a wide variety of issues. He has argued that burning the American flag should be legally permissible; he has joined the American Civil Liberties Union in promoting the Open Borders campaign, fighting for the expanded civil rights of illegal immigrants; he has advocated the expansion of prisoners’ rights; and he has fought for the removal of the Confederate flag from the Alabama State Capitol. Moreover, in an act to which neither leftists nor conservatives object, in 2000 he prosecuted the 84-year-old former Aryan Nation leader Richard Butler in a civil rights lawsuit that resulted in a $6.3 million civil judgment against Butler and his racist organization.
In 2001 the SPLC under Cohen’s direction sued Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore for having placed a Ten Commandments monument in the rotunda of the state courthouse, Cohen was quoted many times claiming that the monument’s presence violated the concept of “separation of church and state.” Moore defied a federal judicial order to remove the monument, claiming that its presence embodied his commitment to “acknowledge God,” which he said the Alabama Constitution required him to do. Cohen launched an ultimately successful campaign to have Moore removed as Chief Justice. The attorney called it “wrong . . . for a public official [like Roy Moore] to use the power of his office to promote his own religious beliefs. Religious proselytizing by private groups is the American way; proselytizing by a public official violates the Constitution.” However, public opinion in the case rested decidedly with Moore. At the height of the conflict, scientifically conducted opinion polls found that three-quarters of Alabama residents supported Moore’s position.
During his tenure with the SPLC, Cohen has also sued the National Collegiate Athletic Association for requiring participants on college sports teams to register at least a minimum acceptable score on standardized scholastic aptitude tests. Cohen called the NCAA’s recently implemented rule “racist” because it would likely affect black students disproportionately, given that they tend, as a group, to score considerably lower on such tests than their white counterparts. Moreover, he threatened to sue a college football team for having named its mascot “Chiefs,” claiming that the nickname belittles Native Americans.