DETROIT -- Notes on the family fridge to remind to “pick up milk” or “Bobby’s soccer game 6:30 tonight” are a common sight in Michigan homes.
Avern Cohn uses such notes, too — except his are stuck to the bench in a federal courtroom in Detroit. And Cohn, a federal judge, is trying to remind himself that a jurist doesn’t always have to have the last word.
“Always remember that lawyers have as much right to be in the courtroom as the judge!” one note reads.
“He who angers you controls you,” another says.
“No matter how high the throne, there sits but an ass!” a third note warns.
Cohn, a feisty, opinionated and forceful judge, says the adages have served him well during a 33-year judicial career.
“Those notes are out there as cautions — yellow flags — to remind me who I am, what my role is and how to deal with problems,” he explained. “The trouble is,” he quickly added, “I don’t always see them because I wear bifocals.”
At 88 years of age, Cohn is the oldest active federal district judge in Michigan. Though he now needs a cane to get around, his mind is as quick as ever, say lawyers, prosecutors and court workers. He still carries a full caseload, his staff struggles to keep up with him and Cohn says he has no plans to retire.
Carter appointee still going strong
Since President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the bench in 1979, Cohn has forged a reputation as one of Michigan’s brightest, most colorful federal judges -- and a staunch defender of the First Amendment.
Although Cohn runs his courtroom with an iron fist and often has little patience with lawyers who show up unprepared for court or who lack his mental agility, attorneys praise him for his fairness, legal knowledge and willingness to reconsider his decisions.
“You better know what you’re doing when you appear before Avern Cohn,” says Detroit criminal defense attorney David Steingold. “He can be hard on you, but he’s one of the smartest, analytical and compassionate judges on the bench.”
Cohn was born and raised in Detroit, the grandson of Russian and Polish immigrants. His father, Irwin I. Cohn, was a Detroit bankruptcy lawyer turned real estate investor and corporate lawyer. His mother, Sadie, was a homemaker.
As a child, Cohn regularly tagged along with his father at work and decided early on to become a lawyer.
After graduating from Central High School in 1942, he enrolled at the University of Michigan, but was drafted into the Army during his sophomore year. He spent the next three years of his military service attending engineering and medical schools in Texas, California and Illinois.
When World War II ended, Cohn enrolled at the University of Michigan Law School, earned his law degree in 1949 and joined his father’s Detroit law firm.
He spent the next 30 years practicing administrative law and representing clients in business disputes. When his father’s operation merged with another prestigious Detroit law firm in 1961, Cohn stayed on as a partner.
“The Cohn in Honigman, Miller, Schwartz and Cohn is my father, not me,” Cohn said.
Young lawyer defends looters, earns Red Squad tag
Despite a busy and lucrative law practice, Cohn says he had plenty of excess energy. So, he got involved in local, state and national Democratic political campaigns and social causes that raised his public profile.
In 1963, then-Gov. George Romney, a Republican, appointed Cohn to a Democratic seat on the Michigan Social Welfare Commission, which oversaw the state Department of Social Services.
Cohn also volunteered his time as a cooperating attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union and pursued various social and legal causes. During the 1967 Detroit riot, he represented looters for free at court arraignments. He actions prompted the Michigan State Police and Detroit Police Red Squads to monitor his activities, as they often did with liberal advocates of the time.
“The files contained a bunch of newspaper clippings and maybe a surveillance report,” Cohn remembered.
From 1972-75, he served on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission — the last two years as chairman.
Cohn was an early supporter of Coleman Young, the former state senator who became Detroit’s first black mayor. After Young was elected in 1973, Cohn asked for an appointment to the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners.
Cohn insists that he requested the appointment only because he lived in Detroit and wanted a police radio so he could listen to police calls. Cohn said Young was hesitant because he didn’t trust lawyers. But when Cohn promised not to act “lawyerly,” he got the job — along with a police radio that “didn’t work very well.”
From 1976-79, Cohn and other activist commissioners spearheaded Young’s controversial plan to change the make-up of Detroit’s overwhelmingly white police department, which many black residents viewed as an army of occupation.
“Coleman Young wanted to integrate the Detroit Police Department and the Police Commission was his agent for doing so,” Cohn recalled. “I made lots of enemies.”
Judicial seat achieved
Cohn said he aspired to become a federal judge from the day he stepped into a federal courtroom in 1949. But he had to wait 30 years to get his chance.
He expressed an interest in a bench seat in 1966 to then-Sen. Phil Hart, D-Mich., but Hart had someone else in mind. Cohn tried again after Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was elected president in 1976. But then-Sen. Donald Riegle, D-Mich., was hesitant to recommend Cohn to Carter.
“Riegle was concerned that I lacked judicial temperament — and he was right,” Cohn told the federal court’s historical society in a 2005 interview.
“I had never been a shrinking violet,” he added. “I was militant, excitable, forceful, occasionally probably interrupted people, occasionally irritated people.”
Riegle relented because Cohn had strong backing from Coleman Young and then-UAW President Doug Fraser. Carter nominated Cohn in 1979 and Cohn won easy Senate confirmation.
Cohn said he had a tough time adjusting to his new job because he had relatively little trial experience and knew almost nothing about hiring or managing a court staff. But he worked hard and got the hang of it.
In the years that followed, Cohn presided over several high-profile cases.
-In 1989, he set a national precedent by striking down the University of Michigan’s anti-hate speech code, saying it was vague, overbroad and violated the First Amendment rights of students. U-M — Cohn’s alma mater — had to rewrite its policy.
-In 1995, Cohn caused a national stir by dismissing criminal charges against Jake Baker, a U-M student who had fantasized on the Internet about raping, torturing and murdering women. Baker was the first person to be charged with a federal Internet crime. Cohn not only released Baker from federal custody, he declared that his writings were constitutionally protected speech. A federal appeals court agreed.
“He was just an immature college kid,” Cohn recalled. “He didn’t mean any harm. He just lacked good judgment.”
-In the late 1990s, Cohn presided over the lawsuits that inventor Robert Kearns filed against American and foreign auto manufacturers for infringing on his patent for the intermittent windshield wiper. Kearns won $30 million in jury verdicts and settlements from Ford Motor Company and Chrysler Corp. and his saga was turned into a 2008 movie, “Flash of Genius,” starring Greg Kinnear.
Cohn, though, received little notoriety from the film because the judge in the movie was named “M. Franks.”
But a few years later, he bid $1,500 in a Michigan Opera Ball charity auction and won the right to get his name in an Elmore Leonard crime novel. Later on, he was amused to learn that the “Avern Cohn” in the novel was a sleazy lawyer.
-In 2008, Cohn refused to jail Nada Prouty, a Lebanese immigrant who admitted faking a marriage to become a U.S. citizen and, eventually, an accomplished FBI agent and daring CIA operative. The government said she shared FBI secrets with her brother-in-law, an alleged terrorist sympathizer. Cohn disagreed, saying the government had blown the case out of proportion. He fined Prouty $750, but was forced to revoke her citizenship because of her plea agreement with prosecutors.
-In 2010, he sentenced then-Detroit Councilwoman Monica Conyers to 37 months in prison for taking $6,000 in bribes in exchange for her vote in favor of a $1.2-billion sludge disposal contract.
Cohn’s first wife, Joyce, died in 1989. In 1992, he married Lois Pincus, who owns an art gallery in Birmingham. He has three adult children.
He is a voracious reader, devouring five newspapers a day in addition to court papers, legal journals and books spanning a variety of topics. He also is a prolific letter writer who shares his views with newspaper editorial pages and law journals. Reading and working are his only hobbies.
“He is insatiably curious and that’s his secret as a judge,” says Detroit attorney Andrew Doctoroff, a former Cohn law clerk. “At 88 years old, to continue to have that kind of energy is remarkable. He’s a gift that keeps on giving.“
Cohn compares his life to being an actor.
“For the last 33 years, my role has been to be a judge,” he said. “I think I’ve played the role rather well. I think I’ve upheld my part of the justice system. And I think in some measure that I’ve influenced others.”
David Ashenfelter served as a reporter for many years for both the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press and won Pulitzer Prizes at both papers. He’s a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame.