SOUTH PORTLAND — Frank M. Coffin, a widely admired judge on the United States Court of Appeals for four decades and one of few individuals ever to serve in all three branches of the federal government, died Dec. 7 at age 90.

Judge Coffin, who underwent emergency surgery for an aortic aneurysm on Nov. 21, was surrounded by his wife of 67 years, Ruth, and their four children at the time of his death.

In addition to his federal service, Judge Coffin had a distinguished career as a Maine lawyer and politician. He is credited, with his friend Senator Edmund Muskie, with rebuilding the Maine Democratic Party in the 1950s, and he served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives on behalf of Maine’s 2nd District. Beloved by all who knew him, he will be remembered for his kind, generous spirit as well as for his extraordinary professional achievements. As one of his law clerks observed, “his inspiration to live a full and worthy life will sustain us in his absence.”

Born in Lewiston on July 11, 1919, Judge Coffin attended Bates College, where he met and began his storybook romance with Ruth Ulrich. Throughout his career, Ruth, their children Nancy, Douglas, Meredith and Susan, and the extended family of spouses and grandchildren remained the centerpiece of his life. The early years of his marriage included a two-year separation while the Judge was stationed in the Pacific as a Navy officer during World War II, which also interrupted his studies at Harvard Law School. In a journal entry during that time, he wrote “I am to study law with the intention of using it as a tool for social progress. I shall aim at the very top; I pray God that I shall never be blinded from seeing this social goal by any personal considerations . . . . God give me humility, patience, ability, willpower, and humor.”

While at the Law School, where he graduated with honors, Judge Coffin served on the Legal Aid Bureau, providing free legal services to those who could not afford it. He began his legal career in 1947, practicing law in Lewiston like his grandfather before him and clerking for a federal judge in the Portland courthouse where his own chambers would later be located. He then joined Verrill Dana’s Portland office, and became immersed in Democratic politics. Between his stint in Congress and his appointment to the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in 1965, Judge Coffin advanced foreign aid programs under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He served as Chief Judge of the First Circuit from 1972 to 1983, retiring from active judicial service in 2006.

During his time on the bench, he wrote three books on appellate judging. In two of them, “The Ways of a Judge,” and “On Appeal,” he sought to open the mysteries of judging to the public while also providing valuable insights to his peers. In his third book, “A Lexicon of Oral Advocacy,” he offered a typically witty depiction of oral advocacy styles; the book was illustrated by his son, Douglas.

Judge Coffin more than fulfilled his pre-law school promise to use law for the public good. In November 2008, he was honored for his many contributions to legal services in Maine, among them, chairing the Justice Action Group, which guides initiatives to increase access to justice in Maine; developing the Coffin Fellowship for Family Law, which gives young lawyers the opportunity to represent low-income family law litigants; and helping to create the Campaign for Justice, a unified fundraising appeal for Maine’s six legal aid providers, which has generated more than $1 million in contributions from the Maine legal community. In 1992, the University of Maine School of Law established the annual Frank M. Coffin Lecture on Law and Public Service in his honor. He also received the prestigious Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award, presented by the American Judicature Society, in recognition of his exemplary judicial career.

When Judge Coffin announced his retirement, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, a former First Circuit colleague, said, “Frank taught us all so much of value – about law and about character. Through his opinions, his legal writings, his experience, his understanding of government, and his humanity, he has become a judicial legend in his own time.”

Retirement from the bench brought many benefits, but none greater than a chance for the Judge to spend more time with Ruth. Avid readers both, they turned the restrictions of her failing eyesight into one of the joys of their life together, as he read out loud to her each day in their family home in South Portland. He also pursued his lifelong avocation as an artist. An accomplished sculptor, painter, and writer, he had completed his multi-volume memoirs just weeks before his death and continued to chip away in his sculpting workshop almost daily until he became ill.

Judge Coffin was the patriarch of two families – the one he shared with Ruth, and the extended family of 68 former law clerks who worked for him during his years on the bench. Inspired by his example, many of those clerks, now scattered throughout the country and beyond, have gone on to careers in public service. But his influence on them, combined with Ruth’s, extended far beyond the courtrooms, classrooms and other locations in which they work. In the words of one clerk family member: “He and Ruth have long been such a model of marriage and family, maintained in the midst of meaningful involvement in the big world.”

In addition to his wife Ruth, Judge Coffin is survived by his four children, Nancy Coffin Kurtz, Douglas Coffin and his wife, Janet Milley, Meredith Coffin and her husband Dan Hallett, and Susan Coffin Babb and her husband, Ed Babb; a brother, Jack Coffin and his wife, Judy; and six grandchildren, Esther, Nathan and Adam Kurtz; Sigrid and Harpswell Coffin; and Morey Hallett.

A public celebration of the Judge’s life will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 2, 2010, at USM’s Abromson Community Education Center on Bedford Street in Portland.

Memorial donations may be made to the University of Maine School of Law Foundation, 246 Deering Ave., Portland, ME 04102.