Judge had a 'heart of gold' and keen intellect


It was just a few months ago that I was writing about a book recently published on the life and legal career of Avern Cohn, the aptly-described “legendary” federal judge who spent 40 years on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

The story was framed in the present tense. This column is decidedly different, coming just a few days after Judge Cohn died at age 97 following a brief illness.

The book, written and edited by Jack Lessenberry and Elizabeth Zerwekh, serves as a tour de force on all things Cohn, capturing the essence of a man who was a mystery to many.

For all his legal brilliance, Judge Cohn also could be short on patience, so much so that he had to be reminded to reel himself in whenever someone touched a legal nerve in his courtroom.

Those reminders came in the form of sticky notes that he placed around his presiding post, telling himself to “keep cool,” to be mindful that “the lawyers have as much right to be in the courtroom as the judge,” and that “he who angers you controls you.”

When Cohn was appointed to the federal bench in 1979, one of his admirers, 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 could be disarming at times, almost as much as his continued desire to maintain a full caseload and to eschew any thoughts of retirement until 2019 when declining health finally caught up with him.

The decision to retire came but a few months after he celebrated his 95th birthday at a gala event in the federal courthouse. On the eve of that celebration, I asked the esteemed jurist his thoughts about the “R” word.

“There is work to be done and I enjoy doing it,” Cohn said in a forceful response. “Work energizes me.”

Indeed it did – and far beyond the confines of his courtroom.

Gerald Rosen, former chief judge of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District, long marveled at Cohn’s keen intellect and his voracious appetite for learning, noting that “he read everything” and that “his mind was like a vacuum.”

Of greater importance, Cohn’s legacy will embody much more than his smarts, according to Rosen.

“His service on the bench was not about him,” said Rosen. “It was about the fulfillment and perpetuation of the ideals of our system of justice.”

Cohn, over the course of his judicial career, gained a well-deserved reputation as a no-nonsense kind of judge, the type that could tongue-tie and intimidate even the most seasoned attorney.

U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman would undoubtedly agree with that assessment. Friedman, who has served on the federal bench since 1988, regularly sought Cohn’s counsel and was on the receiving end of words both pointed and praiseworthy.

“From day one, he has never been shy about giving me a call, telling me when I have done something wrong or have done something right,” Friedman told me in an interview several years ago.

“It’s always worked both ways with him. He has been my ‘go-to guy’ since I became a federal judge. He has so much wisdom to share.”

Those comments now take their meaning in the past tense, just as posthumous tributes were paid recently to Cohn colleagues Marianne Battani and Arthur Tarnow, two longtime judges who died within the span of the past six months.

The most recent loss – of Judge Cohn – was framed in enduring terms on Saturday by Judge David Lawson, whose admiration for his longtime colleague was profound.

“We all have our Avern stories, and they all point to a man with a crusty exterior and a heart of gold,” Lawson said. “He was a force of nature, a rare intellect. He lived a full life, but still this is a great loss to many of us. It is the end of an era.”

During his 95th birthday celebration in 2019, Judge Avern Cohn (right) was visited by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (left).
(Photo by John Meiu)


Subscribe to the Legal News!


Full access to public notices, articles, columns, archives, statistics, calendar and more

Day Pass Only $4.95!
One-County $80/year

Three-County & Full Pass also available