Archer Award: Retired federal judge to earn royal salute at annual event


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Retired U.S. District Court Judge Avern Cohn is this year's honoree of the Archer Award, joining an illustrious list of previous winners that has included the likes of former U.S. Senator Carl Levin, the late U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, and 2019 recipient Denise Page Hood, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. The 16th annual event is named in honor of former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, a past president of the American Bar Association.

"For over a decade, the Detroit Bar Association Foundation has presented the Dennis W. Archer Public Service Award to a member of our profession whose commitment to public service goes above and beyond the call of duty," said a spokesperson for the Foundation. "Since 2003, this award has been reserved for the best of the best of Michigan's legal profession-extraordinary lawyers and judges who have established careers dedicated to the betterment of both our profession and our community."

Cohn, after 40 years on the federal bench, announced his retirement from the judiciary in December 2019, capping a distinguished legal career that included a partnership role with one of Detroit's premier law firms, Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn.

A 1949 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, Cohn spent 30 years in private practice before accepting an appointment to the U.S. District Court. The then President Jimmy Carter made the appointment in 1979, setting the stage for a judicial career that would be marked by a number of high-profile cases and important rulings.

At Cohn's 95th birthday party in July 2019, Chief Judge Hood was among the featured speakers, praising the Detroit native as "the intellectual among us" on the Eastern District bench, highlighting his thirst for learning and his voracious appetite for reading.

"He reads everything," Hood said of Cohn, noting that he regularly sends e-mails to his judicial colleagues on items "of interest." That heading really serves as code for "read this, especially before you see me next," Hood said to a round of laughter.

Longtime U.S. District Court Judge Borman also spoke at the event, singing Cohn's praises as a "professional grade historian" whose generous support of such institutions as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Detroit Opera House have helped add luster to the community.

"He also has been a leader on behalf of the Detroit Jewish community," said Borman of Cohn. "His portrait hangs in my courtroom and inspires me to be the best judge I can be."

Longtime U.S. Senator Levin, a fixture on Capitol Hill for 36 years before retiring in 2015, said the "guidepost for Avern Cohn" has been the desire and commitment "to pursue justice." As evidence, Levin recounted at the birthday event the legal odyssey of Ibrahim Parlak, a respected restaurant owner on the west side of Michigan when he was arrested in 2004 for allegedly lying on his application to become a naturalized citizen after seeking asylum and immigrating to America in 1991.

"As a Kurd living in Turkey, Parlak was arrested and tortured for his involvement with the P.K.K," Levin said of the Kurdish independence group that was later labeled as a "terrorist" organization by the U.S.

While awaiting deportation, Parlak's case came before Cohn, who ordered his release, according to Levin. In his decision, Cohn said that Parlak had "lived an exemplary life in the United States" and "had been a model immigrant" who "is not a threat to anyone nor a risk of flight."

And yet, Levin indicated, the Department of Homeland Security continued to push for deportation through a series of appeals in various courts, a legal quest that has been blocked by an immigration law judge.

"Ibrahim Parlak owes his current freedom in large measure to this man Judge Cohn," Levin said, his voice cracking with emotion.

Before becoming a judge, Cohn served on the Michigan Social Welfare Commission, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, and the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners. His longtime community involvement was highlighted in 2014 when Cohn and his wife, Lois, were honored with the Activist Award from the Jewish Community Relations Council. The Cohns were saluted for their "prolific legacy of commitment and contributions to the Jewish community, advancing social justice, and supporting Detroit's arts and cultural institutions."

In addition to his community activism, Cohn said he is continually enriched by the joy of legal learning. In particular, he said, "intellectual property cases, patent, copyright and trademark, are the most satisfying and interesting cases on my docket."

Cohn whose father, Irwin, was a prominent bankruptcy and corporate lawyer gained a well-deserved reputation as a no-nonsense kind of judge, the type that can tongue-tie and intimidate even the most seasoned attorney.

And yet, Cohn was mindful of the need to remain respectful of those who appeared before him. He has the sticky notes to prove it. Many of them lined the bench in his federal courtroom in downtown Detroit. Among his favorites:

-"Always remember the lawyers have as much right to be in the courtroom as the judge."

-"A problem well stated is a problem half solved."

-"Keep cool."

-"He who angers you controls you."

When Cohn was appointed to the federal bench more than four decades ago, one of his admirers, the late Joe Stroud, then editor of The Detroit Free Press, offered his congratulations and a timeless piece of advice.

"Congratulations on becoming a judge," Stroud wrote to Cohn. "Just don't be too judgy."

Stroud's words dovetailed nicely with another sticky note dear to the heart of Cohn.

"No matter how high the throne, there sits but an ass!"

The Cohn sense of humor can be disarming at times, almost as much as his desire to eschew any thoughts of retirement until last year when he stated: "Most judicial systems have a mandatory retirement age. While I don't believe in mandatory retirement, there comes a time in the course of one's work that they retire and let their work be borne by younger persons."

This year's Archer Award event will be held in the virtual realm due to the pandemic. The Thursday, Nov. 19 ceremony will run from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Tickets cost $50 with all registrants receiving a complimentary Detroit Bar decal, while also giving a significant boost to "free legal clinics and community outreach programs," since 90 percent of the proceeds from the event will be designated for those causes.

For information, contact Darlene Trudell at or 248-408-6919.


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