Politics & Government
11:06 am
Wed July 23, 2014

This U.S. District Judge turns 90 today, and he has no plans to stop hearing cases

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Thirty-five years ago this spring, President Jimmy Carter nominated Detroit attorney Avern Cohn to be a federal judge.

High-tech meant IBM selectric typewriters back then.

Detroit had nearly twice its current population. The World Wide Web wouldn’t exist for more than a decade, and President Obama was a teenager still in high school.

Today, U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn turns 90. And he’ll spend the day, as usual, in federal court, where he still hears cases, full time.

“I get great satisfaction out of this,” he told me when I talked to him last week. “I’m happy. Every day is different. You are always learning something new. It is a job that keeps you young.”

Whether that’s true, I can tell you this. You can find plenty of lawyers who will tell you that Avern Cohn can be short-tempered or abrasive. He has a temper, and lawyers who appear in his court less than prepared are apt to be verbally skinned alive. But you won’t find anyone who will say that he isn’t up to the job. And I have to confess that I greatly admire him. Two weeks ago, I had lunch with the judge and his charming wife Lois, who owns an art gallery in Birmingham.

"I'm happy. Every day is different. You are always learning something new. It is a job that keeps you young." -- Judge Avern Cohn

In his spare time, the judge reads serious biographies like some people eat popcorn. We spent some time talking about Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest best-seller on Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. From memory, Cohn explained in detail the importance of one of the complex appellate decisions Taft issued more than a century ago.

Then he explained a split that had happened in the Michigan Democratic Party in 1960, and went on to analyze the Detroit Tigers.

There may, indeed, be something healthy about the bench. Judge Cohn is now the oldest federal judge in Detroit.

But he told me that nationally there are something like 30 federal judges in their 90s or older. One of these, Judge Wesley Brown of Kansas stopped hearing cases three years ago, at age 103, the year before he died.

Most older judges work part-time. Not Avern Cohn. Though he took senior status 15 years ago, something that entitles him to work less, he never has. He loves what he does.

Nor does he plan to leave, he told me, until they carry him out. That may not be for a while. He’s had his share of famous cases, perhaps most notably, the one in which he struck down the University of Michigan’s anti-hate speech code on First Amendment grounds.     

But when I asked if he had a favorite case, he told me no, and said he just took what comes, adding, “a judge who wants a case should never have it.”

Though a lifelong Democrat, his role model for judicial behavior was his Republican colleague, John Feikens, who remained active till his death at 93, three years ago.

“Sure, he had his shortcomings. I assume I may have mine,”Judge Cohn said. Overall, he says, “I’d like to think I’ve made some contributions to the well-being of the community as a judge.”

In my non-legal judgment, he is guilty as claimed.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.