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Retired Detroit Federal Judge Avern Cohn Dies at 97

By Allan Lengel

Retired Detroit U.S. District Judge Judge Avern Cohn, a voracious reader, intellect and a true character who presided over high-profile cases in four decades on the Detroit bench, died Friday night. He was 97.

Judge Avern Cohn celebrating his 95 birthday in July 2019 in the federal courthouse.

He had been in declining health and died at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak in suburban Detroit. The cause of death was not immediately disclosed.

The Birmingham resident retired in 2019, but continued to stay in touch with the many colleagues and friends from his days on the bench.

“Avern Cohn, one of the more brilliant and profoundly intellectual judges ever to sit on the federal bench, died last night, a few months shy of his 98th birthday,” wrote close friend and journalist Jack Lessenberry on Facebook Saturday morning.

“He was intellectually active to the end, writing pieces and columns that alerted the powerful to problems and injustices in the legal system and elsewhere, and working on groundbreaking pieces about early Michigan history,” wrote Lessenberry co-author of a 2021 biography of Cohn titled “Thinking About ‘The Other Fella.'”

Cohn, who could be fiery on the bench, was also compassionate and reasonable in sentencing. He retired in 2019. 

“We will never see another one like him,” said attorney Steve Fishman, who practiced before him. “He was unique unto himself. The thing I will remember most about Avern Cohn was he could dish it out, but he could also take it when lawyers dished it back.” 

Cohn’s prominent cases included the bribery trial of Detroit 36th District Judge Leon Jenkins, a civil case involving Robert Kearns, inventor of intermittent windshield wipers, a First Amendment case involving University of Michigan student Jake Baker and the bribery sentencing of Detroit Councilwoman Monica Conyers following her guilty plea. 

Born on July 23, 1924, he was raised in “a typical middle-class Jewish upbringing in Detroit’s ‘golden ghetto,'” as he describes it in a Michigan Bar Journal article two years ago. As a kid he rode his bike around northwest Detroit and played ball in vacant lots. In the summer, he went to sleepaway camps. In 1937, he had his bar mitzvah at Sharrey Zedek in Detroit.

In 1942, he graduated from Central High School in Detroit. 

He was selected during World War II  for an Army Specialized Traning Program. He was sent to pre-engineering, then pre-medical training and then medical school. After the war, he abandoned the idea of being a doctor and earned a law degree a the University of Michigan. He worked at his father’s law firm, Irwin I. Cohn, from 1949-61, and then Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn in Detroit from 1961-79.

President Jimmy Carter nominated him to the bench on May 17, 1979 at age 54. The U.S. Senate confirmed him later that year.

It took a while to get there. 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, according to an obituary released by the federal court.

In 1966, he expressed interest in the bench, but then-Sen. Phil Hart had someone else in mind. He tried again under President Jimmy Carter in 1976, but Sen. Donald Riegle Jr. 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.”

Riegle eventually changed his mind after getting pressure from Mayor Coleman A. Young,  then-UAW President Doug Fraser and the Jewish community, Cohn said.

Over the years, Cohn was clearly one of the more notable characters in the federal courthouse. It wasn’t unusual to see him kibbitzing (chatting) with lawyers and journalists in his chambers, the halls or at lunch. And fellow judges often turned to him for advice and guidance. 

On his birthday, he often went for lunch with staff and friends to celebrate down the street at Lafayette Coney Island.

“Judge Cohn was thee most voracious reader that anyone could imagine,” said criminal defense attorney and former assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Morgan. “When he went away his staff packed two large boxed-type brief cases with things to read. More importantly, he had an even bigger heart than his appetite to read.”

Defense attorney Sanford Plotkin admired his fairness.

“Starting as a young federal defender and through the years, my eyes would light up when his name was on my case because I knew he would do the right thing and you didn’t have to worry about it,” Plotkin said.

Before taking the bench, while in private practice, Cohn served on the Michigan Social Welfare Commission in 1963, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission from 1972-75 and the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners from 1975-79. 

He was also politcally active, working on presidential campaigns including Adlai Stevenson’s and John F. Kennedy’s and Frank Kelley for U.S. Senate in 1972.

Cohn married Joyce Ann Hochman in 1954. They had three children, Sheldon, Leslie and Tom. She passed in 1989. In 1992, he married Lois Padover Pincus. 

Last November, he celebrated his biography’s release at Franklin Hills Country Club. Lessenberry described the self-published book as part biography and part anthology — “sort of an Avern Cohn compendium.” 

Aviva Kempner, a Washington, D.C., documentary filmmaker who grew up in Detroit and was close friends with Cohn, said Saturday morning:

“Avern started out as my parent’s dear friend, and turned out to be a great friend of mine and supporter of my films. I was always elated when Avern saw one of my films and gave it a thumbs up.  Visiting Detroit was always highlighted by having a stimulating dinner with Avern and Lois.” 

He was a regular reader of ticklethewire.com.

Cohn is survived by his wife Lois, his children, stepdaughters Lisa Pincus and Julie Pincus, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. 

The funeral is scheduled for Monday at 2 p.m. at Ira Kaufman Chapel, 18325 W. Nine Mile Rd., Southfield. 


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