William Cohen, Stanford law professor and constitutional law expert, dead at 81

Stanford law Professor William Cohen’s constitutional law casebook has given generations of law students a clear path toward a better understanding of the court's doctrinal issues.

William Cohen, a professor emeritus at Stanford Law School, died April 11 at age 81 after living with Parkinson’s disease for many years.

William Cohen / Courtesy Stanford Law School

William Cohen was a storied instructor of constitutional law, federal jurisdiction and torts at Stanford Law School from 1970 until his retirement in 1999. (Image credit: Courtesy Stanford Law School)

Cohen, who devoted more than 50 years to the study and teaching of rights and citizenship, was the C. Wendell and Edith M. Carlsmith Professor of Law, Emeritus. He earned his law degree at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1956, and then clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, whom he later praised for his “easy, fluid writing style” and his “uncanny knack of putting his finger on the essential issue of a confusing and difficult problem.”

When Cohen left Justice Douglas’ chambers to begin teaching at the University of Minnesota Law School, he was just 24 years old. Later he taught at the UCLA School of Law and Stanford Law School, where he retired in 1999.

Cohen wrote or co-wrote five books (some of which appeared in multiple editions), as well as dozens of articles and essays. In his writing he borrowed Justice Douglas’ simple, lucid style, often inflected by Cohen’s own wry wit. As a specialist in constitutional law, Cohen was unafraid to chide the Supreme Court for entangling the law in irrational distinctions that “added one more layer of tar to the analytical highway.”

His casebook on constitutional law, co-authored with Jonathan Varat and Vikram Amar and now in its 14th edition, has given generations of law students a clear path through the court’s doctrinal thickets. A reviewer wrote that he had “not yet seen a more complete book, one that is better written and more readable, as carefully planned and edited … and as student-friendly.”

Cohen joined the Stanford Law School faculty in 1970, where he became a storied instructor of constitutional law, federal jurisdiction and torts. He often was seen sparring with his great friend and fellow constitutional law theorist Gerald Gunther. Their friendship endured so long, as Cohen wrote in a tribute after Gunther’s death in 2002, that “Gerry and I had each come to know what the other would say” and carried on their doctrinal debates in well-worn half-sentences.

In those debates, Cohen always took the more liberal part, championing broad protections for civil liberties in the jurisprudential tradition of his mentor, Justice Douglas.

Cohen was also a visiting faculty member at Arizona State University, Magdalen College Oxford and the European University in Florence, Italy.

His first wife, Betty, preceded him in death, as did his son, David Cohen. He is survived by two daughters from that marriage, Barbara Miron and Rebecca Cohen Porter (Bruce Porter), as well as Nancy Mahoney Cohen, whom he married in 1976; their daughter is Margaret Cohen Radu (Gabriel Radu).

He also leaves two grandsons, James Badia (Adina Badia) and Nico Radu, and two great-grandsons, Jackson and Marcus Badia; two brothers, Henry and Phillip Cohen; and a sister, Miriam Goldberg. His caregiver, Kato Tonga, has become a treasured part of his family. Cohen lived in Palo Alto.

Donations in Cohen’s memory may be made to the Palo Alto Family YMCA or All Saints Episcopal Church in Palo Alto. A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. April 29 at All Saints Episcopal Church, 555 Waverley St., Palo Alto.