Judge earned his 'legendary' status on bench

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

On the eve of his retirement three years ago, U.S. District Judge Julian Abele Cook Jr. fondly recalled “the journey surrounding his appointment to the federal bench in 1978 by then President Jimmy Carter.

Cook, who served as chairman of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission from 1968-71, was among a number of topflight candidates who were being considered for several openings on the U.S. District Court. As the field was whittled down to a select few, Cook traveled to Washington, D.C. for a pivotal interview with U.S. Senator Donald Riegle Jr., the ranking Democrat in the Michigan Congressional delegation.

“I had never met him and I was extremely nervous going into the interview,” Cook recalled. “I was hoping to make a good impression and to solidify my candidacy, but things didn’t go as planned that day.”

The scheduled formal interview in Riegle’s office took a few “twists and turns” as the then chairman of the Senate Banking Committee was called back to the Senate floor for an important legislative matter, deciding to conduct the interview of Cook en route.

“It was an interview on the run, actually several interviews as he went back and forth from the Senate floor to his office,” said Cook, who earned an LLM from the University of Virginia. “I wasn’t sure if I put two plausible words together during any of it. All I can really remember is calling my wife (Carol) that afternoon and telling her that I had just blown my chance at being on the federal court. She, as is her custom, did her best to pick me up, saying that everything would turn out just fine. Boy, was she ever right.”

Cook, who died May 16 at age 86, would spend 36 years on the federal bench, where he became an endearing and enduring figure. As he reflected on his impending retirement in the fall of 2014, on the 36th anniversary of his ascension to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Cook recalled a saying that hung on the wall of his kitchen.

“It goes something like this,” said Cook at the time. “If you’re being run out of town, get in front of the crowd and make it look like you’re leading a parade.”

At Judge Cook’s retirement reception in the federal courthouse in Detroit, of course, there was nothing but a parade of well-wishers, all there to pay tribute to a longtime jurist with a sterling reputation as a “storied, legendary judge.”

Those words were used by then Chief Judge Gerald Rosen some four years earlier when a portrait of Cook was unveiled during a presentation ceremony. At the time of the June 2010 ceremony in his seventh-floor courtroom, Cook was lauded by friends and colleagues for “judicial excellence” and for his character traits of being “unfailingly polite,” “decent,” “caring,” “honest,” and “hard-working.”

Rosen, who appeared before Judge Cook a number of times when he was in private practice, said his court colleague cast a giant shadow of good.

“Judge Cook has been a leader of our court, and in the legal community at large, for decades,” Rosen said in 2014. “He not only led the court as its chief judge, but he has continued to lead the court as a shining example of how a federal judge should conduct oneself – with dignity, compassion under the law, probity, and courtesy toward all who come before the court. 

“It is no accident that the Federal Bar Association's Civility Award is named after Judge Julian Cook, as he personifies all that it stands for,” Rosen noted. “He is admired, respected, and beloved by our judges, lawyers and, indeed, all members of our greater court family.”

The comments were echoed by U.S. District Judge David Lawson, a colleague of Cook’s for 14 years.

“He is a gentle soul and a prince of a fellow,” Lawson said in 2014 of Cook, whom he first met when the two crossed legal paths in Pontiac in the 1970s. “As a lawyer, he was always very genteel, civil to a fault, and never would attack an opponent, preferring instead to advance the cause of his own client.

“As a judge,” Lawson continued, “he never gets rattled. He is a deliberate jurist with patience that is seemingly boundless. He doesn’t rush to judgment, and when he makes a pronouncement it is as if from the oracle.”

A native of the nation’s capital, Cook obtained his bachelor’s degree from Penn State in 1952, serving in the U.S. Army for two years before entering law school at Georgetown University. After obtaining his law degree, Cook and his wife, Carol, moved to Michigan where he began work as a law clerk for Judge Arthur E. Moore in Pontiac. He then spent 20 years in private practice, developing a reputation as a skilled litigator and reasoned voice in the courtroom.

Over the course of his legal career, Cook was the recipient of countless honors, including the Champion of Justice Award from the State Bar of Michigan. While on the bench, he presided over a number of high-profile cases, including the trial of auto executive John DeLorean and litigation arising out of the Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crash near Metro Airport.

He traced his family roots to the bondage of slavery, which his great-great-grandfather escaped to help found a church and a school for freed slaves in the District of Columbia.

“My father, who was an architect, absolutely loved his profession and his work,” Cook related in the 2014 interview. “I had a deep adoration for my father and I always wanted to be as happy in my life as he was in his. It was a conscious goal of mine. Fortunately, I can with all honesty say that I have loved my job. As a judge, I love what I’m doing and that has been the hard part of deciding to step down. I’ve always enjoyed going to work each day. It has been a privilege to work here. Everyone associated with the court has been so kind and so helpful to me.”

Yet, Judge Cook considered himself happiest when in the company of his wife and family, the “true lights of my life,” he said.

His wife, he indicated, made a habit of being ahead of the curve, making Phi Beta Kappa at Howard University. She then earned a master’s degree from Columbia University, the Ivy League school in New York City.

“Thankfully, her intellect didn’t prevent her from marrying me,” Cook said with a chuckle.

The couple was married for nearly 60 years, and was blessed with three children, each of whom has enjoyed professional success in their respective fields.

In his abbreviated retirement, Cook took time to enjoy his interests in jazz, comedy, and the success of Duke basketball. More importantly, it afforded a greater opportunity to reflect on a life full of good fortune.

“I have been blessed with a wonderful wife and a great family, and I will always be grateful for that,” Cook said as he approached his retirement years. “The fact that I have had the opportunity to serve as a federal judge for all these many years, and to have met and worked with so many dedicated and talented people, has made my life all the more meaningful.”