As chief counsel for the powerful committee run by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Cohen played key roles in shaping major laws like patent reform and guiding judicial confirmation hearings, including those of U.S. Supreme Court justices John Roberts Jr., Samuel Alito Jr., Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Leahy, who relied on Cohen to run his agenda, recently described Cohen, during a farewell, as "loyal" and "a good friend." After nearly 20 years on Leahy's staff, Cohen has the senator's ear more than perhaps anyone else in Washington. The American Spectator dubbed Cohen as "Leahy's Brain" and The Washington Post described him "a feisty and earnest old pro."
Cohen is moving on to work at The Aslan Project with his wife, Mary Louise Cohen, an attorney with Phillips & Cohen. The project, according to its website, works to improve pediatric cancer care in the developing world. "They're now going to leave to help people who have not had the advantages of most of us in this room," Leahy said during an official send-off in June.
The famously private Cohen has declined interview requests even during those times when his work was in the national spotlight, never wanting to make the story about himself. He also declined repeated interview requests for this story.
An automatic reply from his Capitol Hill email address states simply: "I have retired from the Senate Judiciary Committee. If you need assistance, please call the Committee's front desk at 202-224-7703." Kristine Lucius, a longtime Leahy staffer, has taken over the role as chief counsel.
Friends and coworkers gathered last week to celebrate Cohen, who officially left his post in July. His departure has largely gone without notice in the press.
His departure was in keeping with understated style. His official sendoff came at a 13-minute committee hearing June 20 during what Leahy called "a very abbreviated agenda." The hearing featured only two things: a voice vote on a non-controversial bill about mental health services for veterans, and a resolution recognizing Cohen.
Cohen started committee work as a subcommittee staffer for Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) in the 1980s, and started working on Leahy's staff in 1994. "Two decades later I don’t think any of us could have predicted the journey ahead," Leahy said of Cohen's tenure during the hearing.
Through the committee, Cohen worked on legislation such as the Innocence Protection Act, changes to the Freedom of Information Act, The Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, the reauthorization and broadening of the Violence Against Women Act, hate crimes law, and consideration of the four Supreme Court justices.
"The challenges have been great," Leahy said. "Throughout all this, Bruce Cohen has been my wise counsel, protecting civil liberties and privacy in the post 9/11 world, the ongoing battle for marriage equality, the aftermath of countless Supreme Court decisions, from Bush v. Gore to Citizens United, combatting terrorism, oversight in three presidential administrations, and more."
Most recently, Cohen played a major role in the comprehensive immigration reform bill that had extensive hearings at the committee and then on the Senate floor. "I want to thank Bruce Cohen," Senator Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor during an immigration bill push. "This is the capstone of his career. We all know how important he is to the Judiciary Committee."
A former Leahy staff lawyer, Ed Pagano, said Cohen followed the mold of Senate staffers who work behind the scenes. "I think he just thinks his work speaks for itself," said Pagano, now the White House as a deputy assistant to the president for legislative affairs.
Caroline Fredrickson, the president of American Constitution Society and a former Democratic Hill staffer, called the move "a big loss for the Senate."
"I think Bruce is one of those people who can, without exaggeration, be called the 101st senator," Fredrickson said. "He knows the Senate inside and out, knows the rules better than many senators, and has a deep love and appreciation for the institution."
Cohen’s knowledge and experience with judicial confirmations was particularly helpful for the hearings for Sotomayor and Kagan during President Barack Obama's first term. "I think there was a lot of help that came from the committee to the less experienced staff at the White House," Fredrickson said.
He also was a great mentor for staff, Fredrickson said. When she arrived as a staffer for then-Senator Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in 1996, Cohen was one of the first people she got to know. Almost immediately she was on the floor for six straight weeks for anti-terrorism bill after the Oklahoma City bombing and an immigration bill in 1996.
"One of my fondest early memories was sitting in the staff seats and having Bruce draw an amendment tree," Fredrickson said. "It was generous of him to give me some of that background."