An interview that began like very few others

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

I must admit that I miss U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn, who retired from the federal bench in December 2019 after a 40-year judicial career that by any measure could be described as “distinguished” and “significant.”

We became acquainted in the fall of 2009 during an “interview” that had been arranged by then Chief Judge Gerald Rosen, who wanted his colleague to be duly featured for marking a series of milestones that fall – 30 years as a judge and 60 years as a member of his graduating class at the University of Michigan Law School. And for good measure that year, the federal jurist was saluted by the State Bar of Michigan with the Founder’s Award, which recognizes lawyers who exemplify professional excellence and outstanding community contributions.

Collectively, the two anniversaries and the coveted State Bar award warranted a full-page feature on Cohn, except for the fact that the Detroit native wanted no part of it. He made as much known within seconds of me sitting down in his office, doing his best to shut down the interview before it even started.

“As you can see, I’m busy,” Judge Cohn barked at me from behind his trademark scowl. “I really don't have time for this interview. Enough has been written about me already, and you're going to be wasting your time and my time if this goes any further.”

My problem, aside from sitting across from a very unwilling interviewee, was that I had scheduled our photographer to sit in on the proceedings in hopes that he could snap a few candid photos of the judge, who was acting particularly “judgy” at this point of our get-acquainted session.

So, I persisted, trying to convince someone firmly planted in the catbird seat that it would behoove him to come down from his perch even for a minute, perhaps long enough for the taking of an especially candid photo of him chewing out a well-intentioned writer from The Detroit Legal News.

Magically, that may have done the trick, as a small crack in his less-than-friendly façade began to emerge. The crack turned to earthquake-like proportions a minute later when I asked him to tell me a bit about his late father, Irwin Cohn, an “entrepreneurial type of lawyer” who gained legal fame as one of the principal partners in the Detroit firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz & Cohn.

With that simple question, I had opened the floodgates, prompting Judge Cohn to treat me to story after story about the family patriarch, whose legacy is firmly preserved at the U-M Law School with an endowed professorship.
An hour or so later in an interview that somewhat miraculously had gained full traction, Judge Cohn even felt comfortable enough to take me into his courtroom, where his bench was lined with hand-written sticky notes that served as a daily reminder of his important duties as a jurist.

Among the messages: “Keep cool!”

Another was “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.”

A third, perhaps the most telling, read: “Be reasonable. Do it my way!”

That, in the strictest of Cohn terms, may have said it all.

Until he shared another: “No matter how high the throne, there sits but an ass.”

There, in his own self-deprecating way, Judge Cohn had struck the right chord with me, beginning a bond of friendship that I continue to treasure.


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