PORTLAND — Frank M. Coffin was a serious, respected judge when he stepped into a courtroom, but a warm and funny mentor in his chambers, colleagues remembered Saturday.

At a memorial service Saturday, Coffin — who died in December at age 90 and was formerly chief judge of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals — was remembered as a wise judge who took the law seriously, but not himself.

Retired U.S. Magistrate Judge David M. Cohen, one of Coffin’s first law clerks after was appointed to the federal bench in the 1960s, remembered a lawyer walking into Coffin’s chambers, unannounced, and launching into a criticism of one of Coffin’s recent opinions. Finally, Coffin put down his pen, walked over to books of prior rulings, opened one and said, “If you thought that one was bad, you ought to read this one!”

Cohen said Coffin was a considerate boss. One law clerk applicant, he said, had to postpone an interview with Coffin because his mother had a stroke. Then he postponed it again when his mother passed away and figured his opportunity was lost because it was past the time when judges selected their clerks.

Coffin set up an new appointment and hired him after the two finally met, Cohen said.

Margaret McGaughey, an assistant U.S. attorney and former Coffin law clerk, said the judge would sometimes move conferences on rulings from the courthouse in Portland to the summer house that he and his wife, Ruth, shared in South Harpswell.

Those conferences often turned into boat rides on a small outboard the judge had, she said, and Coffin even swore in a few lawyers to the 1st Circuit bar on board the boat.

“He would say he had to do it within (U.S.) territorial limits to make sure he had jurisdiction,” McGaughey said.

Scores of colleagues, lawyers and friends turned out for the memorial service at the Abromson Center at the University of Southern Maine. It was rescheduled for May after a snowstorm forced a postponement of the original date in January.

Kermit Lipez, a judge on the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, said the turnout reflected the hold that Coffin had on people’s lives.

“We were always eager for Frank’s company and that company was one of the lights of my life,” Lipez said. “Once in Frank’s orbit, you never left it.”

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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