A banner birthday: Judge Avern Cohn earns a royal salute at courthouse event

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

There are birthdays and then there are 95th birthdays, which is what U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn celebrated July 23 at a festive occasion in the stately federal courthouse in Detroit.

The birthday bash, preceded by a lunch from one of Judge Cohn’s favorite dining spots – nearby Lafayette Coney Island – served a dual purpose, also marking his 40th year on the federal bench for the Eastern District of Michigan.

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. Then-President Jimmy Carter made the appointment in 1979 and organizers of the birthday party had hoped the nation’s former Commander in Chief would be well enough to attend the July 23 event, but a series of recent health challenges prevented that from happening, according to Lori Van Hove, judicial secretary to Judge Cohn.

Still, there were plenty of legal and political VIPs on hand for the celebration, including former U.S. Senator Carl Levin, former Congressman Sander Levin, former U.S. District Chief Judge Gerald Rosen, Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

Among the featured speakers were Duggan, U.S. District Chief Judge Denise Page Hood, U.S. District Judge Sean Cox, U.S. District Judge Paul Borman, U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow, retired U.S. Senator Carl Levin, and retired Congressman Sander Levin.

Another Levin, current Congressman Andrew Levin, who succeeded his father Sander as the U.S. Representative of the 9th District, spoke at the event in televised fashion from the Floor of the House of Representatives. Levin kicked off the birthday celebration in grand style with a nationally televised tribute to Judge Cohn, a presentation broadcast by C-Span as part of its daily coverage of Congress.

Chief Judge Hood then praised Cohn as “the intellectual among us” on the Eastern District bench, highlighting his thirst for learning and his voracious appetite for reading.

“He reads everything,” Chief Judge 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.

Judge Cox, who served on the Wayne County Circuit Court before his appointment to the federal bench in 2006, said he was “deeply honored” to speak at such a special occasion, calling Cohn “a scholar and a student of history,” who is “devoted to his family and friends.”

Mayor Duggan relayed birthday greetings from his father Patrick, vacationing up north where he spends time with his family after retiring from the federal bench in 2015. While colleagues on the bench, Judges Duggan and Cohn enjoyed a “special relationship” that included occasional “lunch bets” on settling each other’s thorny cases. When Duggan won, Cohn invariably took him to Lafayette Coney Island as his “reward.” When Cohn prevailed, Duggan was on the hook for “lunch at Roma’s,” the legendary Italian café in Detroit’s Eastern Market area. That, said Mayor Duggan, was just one example of “Judge Cohn’s skill” at bargaining.

Judge Borman was next to the podium, 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.”

Judge Tarnow, who has served on the federal bench since 1998, joked that he was the last judge to speak at the birthday celebration “not because I’m the best, but because I’m the longest.” As such, said Tarnow, Cohn “has taught me many things” over the years, including “you really don’t become a judge for 5 to 6 years after your appointment” when the learning curve begins to straighten out.

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 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 Judge Cohn, who ordered his release, according to Senator 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.

Sander Levin echoed his brother’s praise of Cohn, saying that “Avern could have lived a life of leisure and luxury” after a successful career in private practice, but “that isn’t what he wanted to do.” Instead, said Levin, Cohn opted to live a “life of love of family and of work,” setting an example that should be the standard in these troubled times.

“And after all his years on the bench, I can offer him a few words,” Levin said. “Avern, keep going. Keep going.”

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 – has 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 is mindful of the need to remain respectful of those who appear before him. He has the sticky notes to prove it. Many of them line 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 40 years 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 dovetail 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 continued desire to maintain a full caseload and to eschew any thoughts of retirement.

“There is work to be done and I enjoy doing it,” Cohn said several years ago when asked about the “R” word. “Work energizes me.”
 

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