Book offers insightful look at career of renowned judge

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

“There has never been anyone quite like Avern Cohn in Michigan legal history.”

The evidence to back up such a claim appears throughout a book on the retired federal judge whose brilliance is captured in “Thinking About ‘The Other Fella,’” a look at “Avern Cohn’s Life and the Law” as framed by Jack Lessenberry and Elizabeth Zerwekh.

The book’s title, according to Lessenberry, was “inspired by something that Justice Louis Brandeis said was the heart of his judicial philosophy – you have to ‘think about the other fella.’

“That was also how Avern Cohn viewed his role during the 40 years he was on the federal bench in Detroit,” Lessenberry added. “He was devoted to justice, but also believed that a judge ‘has to have compassion, and have empathy – not sympathy,’ for the defendant.”

The book about Cohn turned out to be “intellectually fascinating and a labor of love” for both Lessenberry and Zerwekh.

“Born in Detroit when Calvin Coolidge was President and segregation was taken for granted, he served in the U.S. Army during World War II, went on to college and law school at the University of Michigan,” they wrote in the cover jacket to the book. “In 1949, he began both practicing law and working in a wide range of communities in Detroit and Michigan, at various times serving on everything from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission to Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners, both of which he chaired. He also served as President of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, and was a major force in the Jewish community and in the Democratic Party for decades.

“But the best-known part of his career really began in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter appointed him a federal judge,” they noted. “For more than forty years he presided over cases that included the trial of a spy for the CIA whose employers turned on her, landmark and controversial free speech cases in the early years of the Internet, difficult police and racial issues, a product liability case that potentially affects every woman who has ever used birth control pills, and a world-famous patent case that inspired a book and a movie, ‘Flash of Genius.’”

In 1979, as he awaited appointment to the federal bench, Cohn made a pilgrimage to Runnymede, the “meadow in England where King John and his Barons signed” the Magna Carta,.

It was a profound experience for Cohn, whose father, Irwin, was a prominent bankruptcy and corporate lawyer in Detroit.

“The visit was a moving moment to me, and a fitting way to begin my new responsibilities, and would always be a reminder of the importance of my role, albeit shared by many, of assuring respect for the individual in the law,” Cohn wrote in an October 2013 article for the Center for Judicial Studies at Duke Law.

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