Palm Beach County Court Judge Barry Cohen (Melanie Bell)
Palm Beach County Court Judge Barry Cohen isn’t afraid to speak up when he thinks things should change.
It’s why he applied to manage his beloved New York Yankees and how he got a reprimand from the state Supreme Court.
“I’ve long disagreed with this concept that judges, you know the old expression, that judges are just there to apply the law and not to make the law,” he said. “Which I consider utter nonsense because it’s been the judicial branch of government that has always done things that were initially unpopular and now are accepted as vast improvements in our society.”
Cohen grew up in Queens. His father worked for Social Security, and “government service was in our blood.”
“We were a politically aware and history aware family, sort of with an emphasis on liberal arts, so the law just seemed like a natural field to go into,” he said. “We had no ability in math or science is the other reason.”
He went to college in “freezing upstate New York” and considered becoming a political science professor. But he finished his bachelor’s degree just as his brother finished law school. When his brother took a job as a Palm Beach prosecutor, Cohen followed him south to get his law degree at the University of Miami.
He almost quit.
“It was hot. No Yankees,” he said. And totally opposite of the liberal school he had just come from. “Everybody on campus just wanted to graduate and go to Wall Street and help rich people get richer.”
He stayed. He landed a paid internship as a prosecutor and found a calling.
“As soon as I went into the courtroom I knew the law was something I would like,” he said. “I loved criminal law. With a passion.”
Cohen also loved the Yankees.
“I actually one year was so frustrated, one of the times they fired Billy Martin. So I actually formally sent in an application for the managerial vacancy, pointing out I was only a Little League coach and giving them my proposed lineup for the following year.”
He got a letter back that read: “Dear Mr. Cohen, Thank you so much for your interest. … Rest assured we placed your application on file for future consideration.”
“I laughed so hard,” he said.
After graduation, Cohen became a Palm Beach County prosecutor. Three years later, he asked a friend if the public defender would hire him. Cohen was told the public defender said, “If he’s so dedicated, if he’s willing to come over here for $2,000 less than he’s making now as a prosecutor, I’ll hire him.”
Cohen took it.
“I was a prosecutor on Friday and a public defender on Monday.”
It was short-lived.
“I got burned out,” Cohen said. As a public defender, he explained, “I spent the weekend in the jail with clients, and worrying.”
He went into private practice and soon realized he preferred public service.
“I liked the law. I don’t like business.”
In 1990, Cohen followed in his brother Harold’s footsteps again. He ran for judge and won.
“I felt that I could have a greater impact and try to do some good from the bench,” he said.
His courtroom style depends on the situation.
“I consider myself very informal when a jury is not present. I think formalities are appropriate in the presence of juries to lend dignity to proceedings and so that jurors do not draw the wrong impression. When juries are not present, knowing that being a lawyer is a pressure cooker to begin with, I make every effort I possibly can to eliminate pressure in the courtroom.”
He said he likes succinct written filings, especially memoranda of law, and will read everything he’s given.
But he doesn’t like mandatory minimum sentences, nor what he sees as racial profiling. Speaking out about them got him in trouble with the state Judicial Qualifications Commission and earned him a reprimand from the state Supreme Court. He was required to make a public apology.
That hasn’t changed his views.
“It’s easy to sit in the Legislature and write a law that says in the abstract that this should apply to all defendants who do this,” he said. “And it’s another thing to look that young person in the face and send them away for a nonviolent crime. … I have to admit it bothers me.”
He said the JQC investigation and punishment is troubling on a larger level.
“In my view, the independence of the judiciary is being undermined,” he said.
“If it isn’t a judge who deals with this on a daily basis that can point out that even in following the law that an unjust result is being created, … who is in a better position to do it?” Cohen asked. “I think collectively judges have a responsibility to provide some leadership in improving the system of justice. And I think sometimes things need to be said.”