'Titan of the federal bench' U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn dies after long career

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

The first time Andy Doctoroff wrote an opinion as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn it came back to him "bathed in red ink" and the two went through a tedious word-choice process over and over again. 

It was then Doctoroff knew he "was dealing with someone who really looked at the world through a different type of lens." That lens was one of a commitment to his craft and beyond. 

"It wasn't just his judicial opinions ... everything about that man was about knowledge and ideas," Doctoroff said. 

Judge Avern Cohn

MORE: Eastern District Court closing Monday for Judge Cohn's funeral

Judge Cohn, who spent more than 40 years on the bench retiring at age 95 in 2019, died Friday at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak following a brief illness. He was 97. His death was confirmed Saturday by court spokesman David Ashenfelter.

Cohn is the second federal judge In Detroit to die this year. Arthur Tarnow, 79, who was nominated by President Bill Clinton, died Jan. 21.

Cohn was an "inspiration" and like a father figure to Doctoroff, who is now the Michigan Governor’s Office point person on construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge. Doctoroff was Cohn's clerk from 1990 to 1992.

By his own admission, Cohn could be withering with attorneys. He told The Detroit News in July 2019, "I've cooled down. Age. But every so often, I get impatient."

Doctoroff said Cohn's mind was "absolutely beautiful," but that doesn't mean Cohn didn't have flaws.

"He had notes on the bench when he was presiding ... reminding him that 'the attorneys have every right to be in the courtroom as he does' or to 'keep cool,'" Doctoroff said. "They were actually handwritten notes that he wrote himself, because he was aware of his sometimes excessive tendencies, but we all have excessive tendencies. We all have flaws. It's a big man who looks at himself in a critical way and does something about it."

At the news of Cohn's passing, his peers and the institutions he was associated with weighed in on what he meant to them. 

U.S. District Judge Paul Borman said Cohn was his mentor for 50 years "in the most important values in life: One, about our democracy, two, about our good fortune to live in the great city of Detroit and work to make it an even better city, about being an active Jewish humanitarian, and finally, as a judicial colleague for the last 27 years reminding me almost daily of the judge’s role in pursuing equal justice for all of the people in our society. I will miss him.”

U.S. District Judge Terrence Berg called Cohn a "legend."

"Every trial lawyer who appeared before him knew of his brilliant intellect, his courage to do justice regardless criticism, and even his — often justified — temper," Berg said. "We lost another one of the greats. God rest his soul.”

On Twitter, Michigan Chief Justice Bridget McCormack shared a picture of her with Cohn and wrote: "Rest peacefully, friend."

Throughout her career, McCormack said she received handwritten letter after handwritten letter from Cohn. Some would note disappointment in a Michigan Supreme Court decision and others would be congratulatory. 

"I don't think I've gotten as many handwritten letters from any other person in my life," she said. 

Cohn was "one of a kind," she added, and a "judge's judge in every way."

Last March, McCormack virtually presented Cohn with an award named in his honor from the the Michigan History Foundation. Cohn was the first recipient of the Avern L. Cohn Distinguished Michigan Civic Historian Award for his contributions in preserving Michigan’s history, according to LegalNews.com.

"He really was the most curious person I've ever met with very strong opinions," McCormack said. 

But he was also "almost delighted if you disagreed with him and and pushed back on something."

The Levin Center at Wayne State University Law School mourned Cohn's passing. In a statement, Levin Center Director Jim Townsend called Cohn, a cousin of the center’s founder and chair, the late Sen. Carl Levin, "a friend, mentor, role model, collaborator. ...

“Throughout his lengthy and remarkably varied career, Judge Cohn had an extraordinary impact on the law and our community.

“As recently as the fall of 2020, the Levin Center had the privilege of hosting a panel discussion on Detroit’s civilian oversight of the police which featured Judge Cohn and Senator Levin where Judge Cohn shared his insights as an early member of the Detroit Police Commission. Then as always Judge Cohn was sharp, candid, and full of wit. He was truly one of a kind,” Townsend concluded.

Judge Avern Cohn

Eugene Driker, a longtime friend of Cohn and chair of the Levin Center’s Advisory Board, called Cohn "a titan of the federal bench in Detroit for four decades.

"His intellect and judgment were extraordinary and his capacity for work limitless," Driker said in a statement. "He served as a mentor to new judges on the court, many of whom continued to seek his guidance on difficult issues.

"Judge Cohn had a brusque demeanor, which sometimes camouflaged his humanity and his concern for people and their needs. Throughout his judicial career he remained deeply connected to his community and to its problems. How many leading Detroiters, when confronted with a difficult issue, have instinctively said: 'Why don’t we see what Avern has to say about this.'”

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, and his father, former U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, issued a joint statement on the passing of their cousin, calling him “a giant in public life and in the life of our extended family."

"The breadth of his knowledge of the issues of the day, of history, of the law was overwhelming. His curiosity gobbled up topics of an astonishing variety. He was interested in people, and he kept up relationships with all manner of courthouse building staff, clerks, attorneys, scholars and leaders."

Appointed in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter, Cohn assumed senior status in October 1999. While that typically means part-time duty, nothing changed for Cohn except his title.

As a judge, he struck down the University of Michigan's anti-hate-speech code as overbroad and presided over the case of former Detroit City Council President Monica Conyers, who drew 37 months for taking bribes.

U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn is photographed in his office in Detroit on Oct. 17, 2019.

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 gave medicine six more weeks, then enrolled at the University of Michigan Law School. He received his law degree in 1949 and joined his father’s Detroit law firm.

Cohn spent the next 30 years practicing administrative law and representing clients in business disputes. When his father’s firm merged with another Detroit law firm in 1961, Cohn stayed on as a partner.

As a lawyer, he represented looters for free after the 1967 uprising and later served as a Detroit police commissioner. 

In his judicial biography, Cohn said he had aspired to become a federal judge from the day he stepped into a federal courtroom in 1949, but had to wait 30 years to get his chance.

Although he expressed an interest in 1966 to then Michigan Sen. Phil Hart, Cohn said Hart had someone else in mind. Cohn tried again after Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was elected president in 1976, but then Michigan Sen. Donald Riegle Jr., D-Michigan, was hesitant to recommend him to Carter.

“Riegle was concerned that I lacked judicial temperament — and he was right,” Cohn told the federal court’s historical society in 2005. “I had never been a shrinking violet. I was militant, excitable, forceful, occasionally probably interrupted people, occasionally irritated people.”

Cohn said Riegle relented because of strong backing from then Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, then UAW President Doug Fraser and the Jewish community. Carter nominated Cohn to the federal bench on May 17, 1979, and the Senate easily confirmed him. He was sworn in Sept. 26, 1979.