Harbaugh delivered keynote address at Wade H. McCree Jr. Award Luncheon


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

There is more than just a link to their alma mater that binds University of Michigan alums Avern Cohn and Jim Harbaugh.

Cohn, who recently retired from the U.S. District Court bench after a distinguished 40-year career as a federal jurist, and Harbaugh, a former star quarterback for the Wolverines and now U-M’s head football coach, also share a profound belief in the cause of social justice.

Such was in evidence at the annual Wade H. McCree Jr. Award Luncheon, sponsored on Feb. 26 by the Eastern District of Michigan Chapter of the Federal Bar Association.

A sellout crowd was on hand for the event at the Atheneum Hotel in Detroit, paying special tribute to Cohn as the 2020 recipient of the coveted Wade H. McCree Jr. Award for Advancement of Social Justice.

Cohn, who was unable to attend the luncheon, joins a select list of award winners that includes the likes of George Crockett, Dennis Archer, William Milliken, Eugene Driker, Damon Keith, and Carl Levin.

“The (McCree) Award says to me that for the last 40 years in my work as a judge, my decisions, both civil and criminal, have made a significant contribution to the advancement of justice,” Cohn said in remarks delivered on his behalf at the luncheon by his longtime law clerk, Kim Altman.

“In a recent New York Times book review of Justice John Paul Stevens, the author says that his decisions reflected compassion. The Award says that my decisions reflect the same quality. No higher compliment can be given to a judge than, as the book review put it, they ‘breathe compassion into the law.’”

Harbaugh, now in his sixth season as U-M coach, has displayed his own sense of legal compassion, according to Matt Lund, president of the FBA Chapter.

“I am sure – whether your bloods runs green, maize and blue, or some other color from a school south of here that I shall not mention – you are aware of Coach Jim Harbaugh’s achievements on the field,” Lund said in introducing the former NFL quarterback to the luncheon audience.

“I am not so sure, however, that you would be aware of Coach Harbaugh’s commitment off the field to the cause of Access to Justice,” said Lund.

“Since 2016, Coach Harbaugh has served on the Leaders’ Council of the Legal Services Corporation. The Legal Services Corporation promotes equal access to justice and provides grants for civil legal assistance to low-income Americans.

“Coach Harbaugh is a vocal proponent for fair access to our court system by all, regardless of financial means,” Lund added. “Through his work with the LSC, he has testified before Congress and has undertaken many efforts to advance the cause of Access to Justice.”

Such work, of course, would ring true with Judge Cohn, a 1949 graduate of the U-M Law School. Cohn’s longtime friend and former colleague, retired U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Rosen, nominated him for the McCree Award. The nomination was seconded by Bloomfield Hills attorney Richard Grauer, also a close friend of Judge Cohn.

“I knew Wade McCree,” Cohn said of the former U.S. Court of Appeals judge who later became Solicitor General of the United States. “I was present at the Democratic Party dinner where then-Governor G. Mennen Williams said he was appointing McCree as Wayne County Circuit judge, and since that event have followed McCree’s advancement in the justice system.

“I was one of the many who was disappointed that President Jimmy Carter did not get the opportunity to nominate him for the Supreme Court, which he likely would have done had there been a vacancy during the four years he was president,” Cohn added.

Cohn, a former chair of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, said he sat on a panel in 1987 with McCree, “discussing the ‘Constitution and Its Impact on African Americans,’ sponsored by the Museum of African American History and the University of Michigan – Dearborn.

“That was the last time I saw him,” said Cohn of McCree, who died in August 1987 at the age of 67.

“I have looked at the reported decisions of McCree as a district judge, and many of the Court of Appeals’ decisions which McCree wrote during the time he served on the Sixth Circuit, as well as many of the published writing after he left the Solicitor General’s Office,” Cohn said.

“I also read The New York Times’ obituary on his death. Easily, he would have been honored by the Eastern District of Michigan as a champion of social justice.

“I am honored to join his ranks,” said Cohn.

And as an addendum to being chosen as this year’s honoree, Cohn offered a nod to keynote speaker Harbaugh.

“Finally, I close with the observation that there is a certain serendipity of me being part of a program with Jim Harbaugh,” Cohn noted.

“My ties to the University of Michigan run long and deep; I was the Class of 1949. Go Blue!”


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