Cherished memories: Late jurist remembered as a 'fighter for justice'


– Photos by John Meiu

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Back in late 1996, when she was vacillating about applying for an opening on the federal bench in Detroit, Victoria Roberts got a nudge.

The words of encouragement came from a man who had overcome "his own tales of doubt" on a long and difficult road to judicial prominence.

Julian Abele Cook Jr., the great-great-grandson of a slave, was that voice in her ear, offering "gently persistent" persuasion to the then president of the State Bar of Michigan who now is approaching her 20th year as a U.S. District Court judge.

"Judge Cook told me of the setbacks that he had when he ran his campaign to become an Oakland County Circuit Court judge," said Roberts. "In all instances, he waited his turn. He fought for what was right and just. And in return, he experienced a righteousness and a grace in his life that did not come from his own, but it came from his faith. He knew of slights and setbacks and naysayers, both large and small.

"By 1996, after 66 years of living, Julian could certainly take the long view and he shared it with me," Roberts recalled. "He shared his life of successes and failures, of the odds he had overcome, his persistence, his determination, standing up for what he thought was right, always with quiet dignity, strength, respect, faith, and hope, of not allowing any man to dictate his destiny.

"And so on December 30th, 1996, on the last day that applications were due, and just before 5 p.m., I submitted mine," Roberts said.

The anecdotal story from Roberts was among many shared by friends and family of Cook, whose life was celebrated at a special remembrance ceremony June 23 at the U.S. Courthouse in Detroit. The event took place in Courtroom 716, which Cook called his judicial home before he retired in 2014 after nearly four decades on the bench, seven as chief judge. Cook, appointed to the U.S. District Court by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, died May 16 at his home in Silver Spring, Md.

Cook was raised in Washington, D.C. and earned his bachelor's degree from Penn State in 1952, serving in the U.S. Army for two years before law school beckoned. He received his law degree from Georgetown University in 1958 and a Master of Laws degree from the University of Virginia in 1988.

Following law school, Cook served as a law clerk for then Oakland County Probate Judge Arthur E. Moore. He then spent 20 years in private practice, developing a reputation as a skilled litigator and a reasoned voice in the courtroom. During that time, he served as a special Michigan assistant attorney general, chairman of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (1968-71), and as an adjunct professor at the University of Detroit School of Law (1971-78).

Upon his appointment to the U.S. District Court in 1978, Cook a man of deep faith got his baptism by fire, according to John Parker, who along with Sue Artinian were his first law clerks.

"On taking office, the judge got slammed with about 600-plus cases, mostly all difficult disputes that other judges didn't want to spend the time with or couldn't settle or refused to try," Parker recounted at the remembrance ceremony. "The process for us and for the judge to resolve that caseload was itself a trial, and for the judge it was by fire and water and sand and wind.

"In taking on the tasks, I immediately saw a remarkable person," Parker remembered. "I saw fortitude in refusing to give in, feel misused, a drive to conquer by hard work and will, and a calm spirit and inner grace that I would later recount again and again and fitfully try to emulate in my own life."

It was in 1961, when Cook and another up-and-coming attorney, George Googasian, were introduced to each other during a chance meeting in Pontiac, laying the foundation for a 56-year friendship that was cemented by their mutual love for family, sports, civil rights, and the law.

"In every aspect of his life, Julian was a fighter for justice with a gentle heart," Googasian told those gathered for the June 23 ceremony.

"He was a man of color in Oakland County, Michigan. We were involved in a campaign, and as a candidate for Oakland Circuit judge, in 1972, he and Carol faced racism as frontally as it can be faced in Oakland County, Michigan," Googasian related, noting that Cook's uncle was the "designer of the beautiful cathedral at Duke University," but was denied entrance into the architectural masterpiece because of his color.

"When he was confronted with any aspect of racism, he responded as he did to all adversity in life," Googasian said of Cook. "He listened, he worked to make change, and he worked to advance the rights and causes of everyone."

Brandy Robinson, who served as one of Cook's law clerks from 2009-11, stepped to the podium next, recounting a man of stature whose "love for us was, in fact, supreme."

Robinson was a "young, budding neophyte at the University of Michigan Law School" in 2001 when she applied for a clerkship with the federal jurist. As it turned out, "the judge . . . wasn't ready for my awesomeness then," she said to a round of laughter. But Robinson wasn't easily dissuaded, resolving "in my mind that I was going to work for this man," deciding to "beef up my skill set and give it another shot."

And by 2007, with four years of experience "under my belt," Robinson gave it a second shot, only to lose out to another U-M Law School grad. Twice jilted, Robinson would finally get her chance to work for Cook when filling in for one of his clerks on maternity leave. It would be her opportunity of a lifetime.

"I feel utter gratitude in my heart for ever even having crossed judge's path and for having shared a portion of my life with such a beautiful soul," Robinson said. "I feel a deep sense of pride that a person of his caliber and his excellence was willing to share a portion of his judicial legacy with me and with the clerk family."

U.S. District Court Judge David Lawson, who now presides in the former courtroom of Cook, can relate to that sense of "love and respect" for a colleague and friend who was "both gentle and genteel."

Said Lawson: "Julian loved his wife, his children, his family. He loved this court. He admired his colleagues. He respected the power and authority conferred upon him by Article III of the Constitution. And he used it to dispense justice, promote fairness, level the playing field, and make people's lives better, and he did this from this very room.

"His name is no longer on the door, which ought to remind all of us that we have here no lasting home; it's what you love that matters," Lawson said. "The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, 'When a great man dies, for years the light he leaves behind him lies on the paths of men.' For all of us who learned lawyering and judging from him, Julian Cook is a bright light that will burn for many years to come."

The words echoed in the mind of Cook's son, Peter, who told those at the ceremony of a certain letter that his father kept as a treasured keepsake from a "swearing in ceremony for new citizens" on a July 4th long ago in Hart Plaza.

The letter was written by an 8-year-old girl from Korea, a newly naturalized U.S. citizen, "who wrote him to say what a special day that was and to thank him," Peter Cook related. Through the "magic of the Internet," Cook's sister, Susan, recently reached out to the woman, eliciting a response that would have truly touched their father's heart.

"I have always held a special place in my heart for your dad," the woman wrote. "I am actually leaving this Thursday . . . to head back to South Korea for the first time since I was born there. It's taken me 31 years to have the courage to explore the Korean part of myself and to open my heart up to my adoption story. Becoming a citizen is a piece of my story and I have fond memories of that day, thanks to your dad."

For his family, the letter symbolized the often subtle way that Judge Cook made an impact.

"You know, these are stories we don't often associate with the power that comes with being a federal judge, but it was his ability to be able to touch that one person and change that person's life that was really absolutely remarkable," Peter Cook said. "And I know that he has touched everyone's lives in this room, and you can only imagine growing up in his presence, how much he had an impact on me."

Carol Cook, the judge's wife of nearly 60 years, followed her son to the podium, electing to "rewind the tape to Thursday, August 18, 1990," a day when she was asked to introduce her husband at a "state of the judiciary address" to the Federal Bar. The request was made by Maura Corrigan, then president of the Federal Bar who would later serve as chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

"And I said, 'Oh, Maura, I can't do that,'" Mrs. Cook said of the invitation. "'I don't speak in public. There is no way.'"

Her reluctance came despite an impressive academic pedigree, a bachelor's degree from Howard University, where she earned Phi Beta Kappa distinction, and a master's from Columbia University, the Ivy League school in New York City.

But, with her friend Zelda Bluestone's support and encouragement, Mrs. Cook found a way, getting up before a "sea full of federal bar lawyers" and telling the story of when they, as a recently married couple, moved to Michigan "where he was to become a law clerk in Oakland County" with the bustling city of Pontiac as its county seat.

"For in 1957, and for too many years afterward, the federal bench, the state bench, law firms, and most legal opportunities were virtually closed to people of color, and indeed to most women," Mrs. Cook told the Federal Bar gathering. "One need not apply, was the order of the day."

But her husband was a man who "applied" himself to a career in the law, demonstrating the smarts and the skill over the next two decades to earn an appointment to the federal bench.

"I think he is the kindest, the most handsome . . . the most gentle, the most devoted, and the most intelligent person in the entire universe," Mrs. Cook said in her speech to the Federal Bar chapter in 1990, admitting that "he sometimes drives me" and others "crazy with his very exacting notes to us" written on napkins, backs of envelopes, and scraps of paper.

"Then we know that everything comes to a halt for Georgetown basketball and Penn State football, his alma maters," she said with a smile. "He may not remember your name, but he'll remember who made the second touchdown in the Penn State-Syracuse game. Sports statistics are forever embedded in his mind, along with all that other legal clutter which you all must retain."

Then she told of his love for "flea markets and thrift shops," where he would buy "tools, phones, clocks, radio, and gadgets" along with other "questionable treasures."

Yet, most important of all, she said, was his "complete love for his family," especially his three children, Jay the lawyer, Peter the architect, and Susan the artist and graphic designer.

"He would stop anything, even scheduled trials, motions and conferences, to meet their needs," Mrs. Cook acknowledged.

Then, finished with her trip back in time, Mrs. Cook decided to "fast forward to today," the day of the remembrance ceremony that just so happened to be 24 hours removed from what would have been her husband's birthday.

"Yesterday, June 22, was Julian's 87th birthday," she said. "And we know that he is smiling with a twinkle in his eyes and probably blushing a little bit, but enjoying it all.

"There is never enough time to be with someone you love so much, but we will always love you and revel in the grand memories."