Red letter day: Federal judge to be saluted upon '90th'


 By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

He may be approaching his 90th birthday, but there is still no pulling the wool over the eyes of Avern Cohn.

Now in his 35th year as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Cohn will mark another milestone this Wednesday, July 23 when he turns 90. To mark the occasion, current and former members of his staff hoped to spring a bit of a surprise upon him with an open house celebration after taking him to lunch at one of his favorite haunts downtown. 

But the wily federal judge somehow intercepted one of the open house invitations, thereby taking the “surprise” out of the planned festivities, which will run from 1:30-3:30 p.m. in his second floor courtroom. Still, the event will serve as an opportunity for friends, family, and colleagues past and present to stop by for a visit and to offer birthday well wishes.

Among the celebrants, according to Lori Van Hove, judicial secretary to Cohn, will be the five members of his current staff, “all of his former staff (going back to 1979), including his 33 former law clerks, former case manager who was with him for 25 years, and his former secretary who also was with him for 25 years.” Van Hove added, “Everyone who I contacted was eager to contribute since they think so highly of the judge.”

The birthday celebration comes little more than a month after Cohn and his wife, Lois, were honored with the 2014 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.”

Cohn said he and his wife were “honored and humbled” by the award, which was presented June 22 at the Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. As for the planned birthday open house, Cohn prefers to look upon it in a historical light, invoking the words of Abraham Lincoln. 

“Lincoln liked to tell a story about a man who was ridden out of town on a rail, tarred and feathered,” Cohn said. “As the story goes, someone asked the man how he liked it, and his reply was if it was not for the honor, he would just as soon forget the whole thing.”

Cohn can chuckle at the story, but his staff won’t give him a pass on attending the July 23 open house. Among those certain to be there will be Gerald Rosen, chief judge of the U.S. District Court. Rosen has long marveled at Cohn’s keen intellect and his voracious appetite for learning, noting that “he reads everything” and that “his mind is like a vacuum.”

Said Rosen: “At 90 years old, Judge Cohn remains what he has been for more than three-and-a-half decades – a vital force in the life of our court family, and the conscience of the court. He continues to preside over a full criminal and civil docket with a razor-sharp mind, astute intellect, and remarkable energy and enthusiasm. He is an institution on our court, and is admired, respected and beloved by his colleagues and our staff.”

Cohn, according to officials from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, is only one of 30 senior district judges in the nation who is 90 or older still carrying a full caseload. In the 90-plus age bracket, he is the only judge in the Eastern District of Michigan handling a full caseload, according to Rosen.

Mike Lavoie, a former federal prosecutor and a past president of the Historical Society for the U.S. District Court, is among a legion of Cohn admirers.

“Judge Cohn’s legacy exceeds his own unmatched intellect and work ethic,” said Lavoie, an attorney with Butzel Long in Detroit. “He has acted from his early days on the bench to promote education about the court, its history, and its role in the larger constitutional framework of our government. His service on the bench is not about him. It is about the fulfillment and perpetuation of the ideals of our system of justice.”

U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman would undoubtedly agree with that assessment. Friedman, who has served on the federal bench since 1988, has regularly sought Cohn’s counsel and has been 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 said. “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.”

Friedman, who earlier this year gained national attention for striking down Michigan’s constitutional and statutory bans on same-sex marriage, remembers attending the 65th birthday party for Cohn. The birthday celebrant lived in a home on Pine Lake at the time, just a few houses away from where his mother, Sadie, resided.

“One of Judge Cohn’s best friends got up to give a speech at the party,” Friedman recalled. “He took pride in chiding Avern for still being a ‘Mommy’s boy’ for not moving outside her neighborhood. Everyone at the party got a huge laugh out of that, perhaps even Avern.” 

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 35 years ago, 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 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 when asked about the “R” word. “Work energizes me.”