At nearly 95, Judge Avern Cohn 'calls it the way he sees it'

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Detroit — The first time Matthew Schneider met Judge Avern Cohn, Cohn threw him out of the courtroom. But that's not the point of the story.

The point is what happened next — and what happened next helps explain why there will be a throng in that same federal courtroom Tuesday, eating Coneys and raising plastic cups to Cohn's 95th birthday.

Avern Cohn, Senior United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, is seen in his courtroom at the Theodore Levin United States Courthouse. Cohn turns 95 on July 23 and still keeps a full caseload.

They'll be toasting an eventful near-century.

A medical school dropout, as he likes to put it, Cohn is legendary for his blasts of temper, but also renowned for his ability and his intelligence.

He represented looters for free after the 1967 uprising, served as a Detroit police commissioner when that meant working to integrate the force, had his name taken in vain in an Elmore Leonard novel, and keeps quasi-effective hand-written reminders taped to the low ledge that stands between his stern gaze and a parade of nervous attorneys:

"Keep cool!!!"

"He who angers you controls you."

"No matter how high the throne, there sits but an ass!"

Cohn has been on the U.S. District Court bench since 1979, and you hate to say he's still sharp because that's a low-threshold term you use for someone who can keep track of four bingo cards.

He carries a full caseload. He reads six newspapers a day and gives three news sites one last check before bed. He has an intellect and a tongue as keen as Ginzu knives, even as he's trying to get a handle on the temperament.

He has "a relentlessly curious mind," as former chief judge Gerald Rosen puts it, and a history of important cases.

And he has Schneider, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, as a friend.

Schneider is 45, still less than half Cohn's age. At 29, he was four years out of law school and new on the federal prosecutor's staff, at a hearing for a case about human smuggling.

The details aren't vital. What's important, he says, is that he made a mistake and Cohn "invited me in no uncertain terms to leave his courtroom."

Schneider was stricken, he says. He thought his career was over. Then the phone rang.

It was Cohn. They met that day, Schneider says, and had a long, open talk about procedures, judicial philosophy and history.

They're still talking: Schneider an appointee of Donald Trump, Cohn an appointee of Jimmy Carter, both striving for honesty, even if their methods of delivery aren't quite the same.

"My philosophy is about candor," Schneider says. "Judge Cohn's philosophy is about candor.

"He calls it the way he sees it, and we need more of that in this world."

Judge Cohn keeps notes to himself on the bench inside his courtroom to help keep perspective on the cases before him.

Finding satisfaction

The way Cohn sees it, it would be wrong to enjoy his job.

He's devoted to it, and he has no plans to step away from it, even if his steps these days involve a walker. But lives change in room 218, often for the worse, and it would be inappropriate to take pleasure in that.

"I find satisfaction," he says, in a well-reasoned decision, a thoughtful application of the law or a solid instruction to a jury. 

He is pleased as well when he is moved to change his mind, as he did earlier this month; having taken a stand in a case about city liability, he kept reading and pondering and invited the opposing side to file another brief.

"Wisdom is in short supply," he likes to say. "The fact that it comes late is no reason to reject it."

A recent morning docket included what appeared to be a routine sentencing for a chronic drug abuser who had assaulted a fellow resident of the federal prison in Milan.

Partway through, wisdom once again made an appearance. Wouldn't it be better, Cohn asked, for the judge who would handle sentencing on the defendant's latest drug case to also decide on his punishment for the kicks and punches?

Cohn's sentence, he said, might affect the decision of the other judge. Or it might not. But true justice demanded patience.

The defendant, his legs shackled, shuffled away. Cohn, leaning on a railing, labored down the two steps from the bench to his waiting walker.

Outside the courtroom, the defendant's attorney said, "I love Judge Cohn."

Alvin Sallen, 70, comes from a family of lawyers. His father and uncle both practiced in Cohn's court.

"He has no reluctance to do what he thinks is right," Sallen said. "Part of me would love to go to trial in front of him someday."

The other part probably knows about the taped-up notes, and the reason Cohn posted them.

'Excitable, forceful'

Cohn was born in Detroit. His mother, Sadie, was a homemaker, and his dad, Irwin, eventually became the fourth name on the door at Honigman, Miller, Schwartz and Cohn.

Cohn enrolled at the University of Michigan in 1942, just in time to have his academic career waylaid by World War II. The Army sent him to engineering school, abandoned the program and redirected him to pre-med classes.

Discharged in 1946, he says, he gave medicine six more weeks, then enrolled in law school.

Amid three decades of practice, he volunteered as a lawyer with the ACLU, aligned with various other civic and political causes, and came to the attention of the Detroit Police Red Squad, whose dossier on him turned out to be boring — some newspaper clippings, he has said, and maybe a surveillance report.

He'd been angling for a federal judgeship for more than a decade before Carter finally chose him. At one point, he was torpedoed by Sen. Donald Riegle, a fellow Democrat, who questioned his temperament.

"He was right," Cohn later told the federal court's historical society. "I was militant, excitable, forceful, occasionally probably interrupted people, occasionally irritated people."

Today, he says he has changed. At least a little. Or anyway, he has tried. But it's a resoundingly bad idea to come to his courtroom unprepared.

'No limitations'

Another note taped to the bench: "Always remember that the lawyers have as much right to be in the courtroom as the judge!"

He wants to act that way, he says. Honest.

"I've cooled down," he contends. "Age. But every so often, I get impatient."

The years, Cohn says, have done the usual things to his body. He doesn't offer specifics, but he shakes hands like someone with aching fingers. Though he hires a driver for the commute to and from his home in Birmingham, he says that's to give him more time to read; on weekends, he pilots a Cadillac SUV.

Avern Cohn, Senior United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, talks in his courtroom at the Theodore Levin United States Courthouse.

Doctors have told him to eat or drink more protein, says his judicial assistant of 15 years, Lori Van Hove. They suggested Ensure, but he hated it, so she slipped him some of her Atkins chocolate shakes until he decided he didn't want those, either.

Van Hove will catch him sneaking a Diet Coke, "and I'll look at him and be like, 'Judge?'"

Whatever he's doing, or avoiding, Cohn says he's fine where it counts.

"So far," he says, "as far as I can tell, I have no mental limitations."

Rosen, who's now a principal in a mediation service, concurs.

"He's brilliant," Rosen says. "He's an icon and a legend. And a force of nature."

Within nature, says Detroit Zoo CEO Ron Kagan, Cohn is something else entirely.

In the late 1990s, Kagan led a photo safari to Kenya and Tanzania for civic leaders and zoo donors. Among them was Cohn, his authoritative presence and "probably the most well-read person I know," Kagan says.

At the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, he says, the spectacle of elephants, zebras and giraffes "brought tears to Avern's eyes."

Travel is one of the pursuits kept in Cohn's past, along with sailing and tennis

Now he does what his health will dependably allow, which is hear cases.

Officially, he's been on senior status since 1999. Effectively, he's doing exactly what he did before.

He's technologically adept enough to serve as a visiting judge in California without leaving his chambers in Detroit, but he refuses to send emails. Instead, he mails letters — "some of the most beautiful, thoughtful, kind notes I've gotten from anybody," Rosen says.

Also in contrast, he was malleable enough to pay for an official portrait at the urging of his wife, Lois Pincus Cohn, who owned an art gallery in Birmingham until four years ago.

The painting is a judicial tradition.

But he's either modest or stubborn enough that it moldered in a courthouse closet for 12 years, until Rosen insisted he let it hang on another judge's wall.

In another art form, he had no options.

At a Michigan Opera Theatre benefit, Cohn bid $1,500 to have Leonard attach his name to a character. The Detroit News was given an advance copy of "Mr. Paradise" in late 2003 and called to tell him about his role: a greasy lawyer who served as the agent for a pair of blue-collar hit men.

"Oy," Cohn said. "Oy, oy, oy."

Chili dogs and pizza

The flesh-and-blood Avern Cohn presided over the case of former Detroit City Council President Monica Conyers, who drew 37 months for taking bribes.

Thirty years ago, he struck down UM's anti-hate-speech code, determining that it was too broad. He dismissed criminal charges against a UM student who had published fantasies about violent crimes against women on the Internet, and declined to jail Nada Prouty, a Lebanese immigrant an FBI and CIA operative accused of sharing secrets with her brother-in-law.

Cohn turns 95 on July 23 and still keeps a full caseload.

Across four decades, he has taken another firm stand a few blocks from the courthouse: Lafayette Coney Island over American.

He's held a lunchtime open house there on his birthday every year since his appointment. Van Hove, ruling that Tuesday's celebration will be too large for the space, instead hired Lafayette to set up a grill and chili pot in Cohn's jury room.

"I could live on chili dogs and pizza," Cohn says. Unfortunately, the women in his life — his wife of 27 years, and assistant of 15 — won't allow it. They're not big on sweets, either, though he keeps a deep bowl of candy on his desk for visitors.

But a fellow only turns 95 once, and his objection has been duly noted. Van Hove cleared his schedule for the afternoon, she says, and he can eat whatever he wants.

Then Wednesday, he'll be back at work, the way he always is.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn