'Thinking About . . . '


The book on retired federal Judge Avern Cohn is part biography and part anthology, and is available through Auld Classic Books, 13165 Ludlow Ave., Huntington Woods, MI 48070.

Book offers insightful look at judge’s career   

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 recent book on the retired federal judge whose brilliance and seemingly unquenchable thirst for learning are captured vividly 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.”

Lessenberry and Zerwekh served as authors/editors of the book, which chronicles some of the key cases Cohn presided over during his time on the bench, “the sweep of his career, and how others saw the judge and his legacy – as well as how he sees it himself.”

It was not an easy task, Lessenberry and Zerwekh readily admitted, alluding to the judge’s occasionally cantankerous ways.

“We won’t say the judge is always easy to work with . . . but we will say that working with him has been a pleasure and an honor not subject to appeal,” Lessenberry and Zerwekh wrote in the Afterword to the 220-page book published by Auld Classic Books.

They also wrote the “never been anyone quite like” statement about the 97-year-old Detroit native whose “remarkable life and career spanned most of a century, and included thirty years as one of Detroit’s most respected lawyers and forty years as a prominent federal judge.”

Lessenberry and Zerwekh, individually and collectively, have achieved their own prominence in various writing and literary fields over the course of their careers. 

For many years, Lessenberry taught journalism at Wayne State University and the University of Michigan, while also serving as an editorial consultant to an award-winning newspaper chain in Metro Detroit. In addition, he has been a political analyst for numerous publications, and has hosted radio and television shows on PBS outlets around the state. In 2015, he was the author of “The People’s Lawyer: The Life and Times of Frank J. Kelley,” the legendary attorney general in Michigan who served for a record 37 years.

Zerwekh, who holds a master of library and information science degree from Wayne State, is a professional librarian and archivist, specializing in rare books and private collections. In 2015, Zerwekh edited and published “Letters, etc.,” a collection of Judge Cohn’s own journalistic efforts that appeared in “legal and popular publications” from 1976 to 2005. She played a major role in researching “Reason vs. Racism: A Newspaper Family, Race, and Justice,” a 2020 book written by Lessenberry. 

The book about Cohn, not surprisingly, 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, “justly regarded as the foundation of constitutional liberty in the English-speaking world,” according to the then soon-to-be jurist.

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. 

Such memories would be stirred again in the summer of 2019 when Cohn was honored at his 95th birthday party, a festive occasion held at the stately federal courthouse in Detroit. There were plenty of legal and political VIPs on hand for the celebration, including the likes of former U.S. Senator Carl Levin, former Congressman Sander Levin, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, former U.S. District Chief Judge Gerald Rosen, and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack.

Chief Judge Denise Page Hood was among the featured speakers at the event, praising Cohn as “the intellectual among us” on the Eastern District bench, while also highlighting his love of 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.

U.S. District Judge Paul Borman also spoke that day, 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.

“His portrait hangs in my courtroom and inspires me to be the best judge I can be,” Borman said of Cohn.

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