Federal judge Arthur Tarnow dies following distinguished legal career

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow, who oversaw landmark and lurid cases during a 24-year career on the federal bench, handling everything from civil rights and sex discrimination matters to permanently sealing a black book listing thousands of sex ring customers, died Friday.

He was 79  and died at Henry Ford Hospital after being treated for heart issues.

U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow

The Detroit native was nominated to the lifetime position by President Bill Clinton in 1997 following a distinguished career as an appellate lawyer representing indigent defendants. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate the following year.

Tarnow, a son of a successful electrical supply businessman, was raised in the affluent Boston Edison district. One neighbor was United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, whose chauffeur occasionally drove Tarnow to school in a bulletproof Packard.

Tarnow graduated from Wayne State University Law School in 1965 and spent the next three decades largely working on behalf of indigent defendants and was the first full-time director of the state Appellate Defender Office.

Tarnow was known for his rumpled demeanor, dry sense of humor and eschewing the trappings of a job in an industry with lifetime appointments and big egos. He worked in a marbled building with private, judges-only elevators and security escorts, but Tarnow was often spotted alone, including on the streets of downtown Detroit, strolling through a community garden before returning to his courtroom, where he had installed a bell so jurors could alert him for bathroom breaks.

“Everyone would agree Art did not suffer from the dreaded judicial disease of ‘robe-itis,'” friend and Detroit defense lawyer Steve Fishman said.

“Art Tarnow was one of the finest people I ever had the privilege of knowing," Fishman added. "In addition to being a great appellate lawyer and a terrific judge, he was a wonderful husband and father. I knew that he was very sick, but it still pains me greatly to hear of his passing.”

The judge handled several notable cases and was criticized, in recent months, for freeing nearly three dozen inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic — including a convicted drug dealer accused of shooting two women after being freed from prison.

“Our whole court grieves at the loss of Judge Arthur Tarnow,” Chief U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood said in a statement. “Judge Tarnow was an excellent judge, fair in all ways and ever cognizant of the hurdles facing men and women returning to the community after serving a sentence in prison. He was also a loyal friend and a had a sense of humor that could sometimes catch you off guard or was just plain corny."

In 1999, Tarnow temporarily blocked a new state law that would have banned partial birth abortions and imposed maximum penalties of up to life in prison. Two years later, he permanently blocked the law from taking effect.

In 2006, he agreed there was fraud in a Michigan petition drive to ban the use of race and gender preferences in university admissions and government hiring and contracting. But he said the fraud did not violate federal anti-discrimination laws because it was perpetrated on both Blacks and Whites.

In 2011, Tarnow presided over the cases of a husband and wife who built one of the country's largest escort services, Miami Companions.

The case lingered for months and caused anxiety amid a fight over whether the prostitution ring's black book — a database containing more than 30,000 customer names — would become public. 

Tarnow eventually ordered the black book indefinitely sealed from public view.

"The country and the state of Michigan have suffered the loss of the consummate jurist," said lawyer Paul DeCailly, who defended Miami Companions co-owner Greg Carr. "Judge Tarnow was truly fair and impartial, someone who listened to both sides and ruled within the bounds of the law.  It is a sad day indeed."

Former law clerk Rita Foley, an administrative law judge with the Social Security Administration, recalled Tarnow’s encouragement and firm sense of right and wrong.

“He encouraged his law clerks to be engaged in current events, to think critically, and to view the world in a humanistic way,” Foley wrote in an email to The Detroit News.  “To his law clerks he was the penultimate mentor, counselor, cheerleader, and steadying force.”

Tarnow's dry sense of humor extended to his fashion sense, friends recalled.

He liked old cardigans and braved Detroit winters without a coat, opting instead for a big scarf.

During one lunch meeting, Tarnow arrived wearing one glove.

Someone suggested Tarnow must have lost a glove, Fishman recalled.

“No,” another friend said, “he found one.”

Survivors include his wife, Jackie; sons Tom and Andrew; a brother, Robert; a sister, Adrienne Goldbaum; and two grandchildren.


Twitter: @robertsnellnews