Former congressman, judicial icon Judge Frank M. Coffin dead at 90

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Former Congressman and longtime U.S. Appeals Court Judge Frank M. Coffin died Monday evening at the age of 90.

Family members said Coffin died at Maine Medical Center in Portland, where he had been hospitalized since Nov. 21, when he underwent emergency cardiac surgery.

Coffin, who is survived by his wife of 67 years, Ruth, was a Lewiston native and longtime resident of South Portland. He represented Maine’s 2nd Congressional District from 1956-1960 and with his good friend, the late Sen. Edmund M. Muskie, was credited with reviving the Maine Democratic Party in the 1950s.

Coffin was the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for governor in 1960, directed international economic development programs under President John F. Kennedy, and was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1965. Judge Coffin served for 41 years until he retired from active judicial service in 2006.

During his career as a judge and chief judge of one of the nation’s second-highest courts, Coffin received several honors, and most recently was honored for his commitment to public interest legal initiatives in an event sponsored by Pine Tree Legal Assistance, the Maine Bar Foundation and the University of Maine School of Law.

Gov. John E. Baldacci said in a prepared statement that he admired Coffin’s strength of intellect and dedication to the people of Maine.

“Judge Coffin was a compassionate man, a brilliant man and an icon,” Baldacci said. “Judge Coffin distinguished himself on the bench, setting the bar for judicial temperament. … He will be greatly missed.”

A private funeral is planned, with arrangements by Hobbs Funeral Home. A public celebration of Coffin’s life will be held Saturday, Jan. 2, at 1:30 p.m. at the Abromson Center at the University of Southern Maine.

Judge Kermit Lipez of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston knew Coffin both personally and professionally for many years. Although he knew Coffin was ill, Lipez, of South Portland, said news of his death has still left him in a state of shock. 

“On a personal level, I feel his loss acutely,” Lipez said. “He was my judicial hero. I regarded him as my mentor, my colleague and my friend. He is simply irreplaceable.”

Coffin was one of the few people to ever serve in all three branches of the federal government: He was a congressman from Maine and deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development before he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Coffin made many significant legal contributions, especially in developing and guiding programs to increase access to legal services by poor families. He developed the Coffin Fellowship for Family Law, which has given more than a dozen young lawyers the opportunity to serve in a two-year fellowship representing low-income families and provided direct services to more than 665 client households. 

“Even near the end of his life, he was still heavily involved in that effort” to make legal services accessible to the poor, Lipez said. “I think he had a real fondness for the underdog.”

In 1992, The Frank M. Coffin Lecture on Law and Public Service was established at the University of Maine School of Law to honor Coffin’s commitment to public service. He also received the Edwin T. Dhalberg Peace Award, the Devitt Distinguished Service Award from the American Judicature Society, and numerous other awards and honors from colleges, bar organizations and civic groups.

Coffin was born in 1919 in Lewiston. He was educated in Lewiston public schools, and then went to Bates College. After graduating from Bates he served in the U.S. Navy from 1943-1946. Then he earned degrees at both Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School.

After starting to practice law in Lewiston in 1947, Coffin joined the Portland-based law firm Verrill Dana in 1952.

Coffin became very active in Democratic politics in the 1950s. He was chairman of the Maine Democratic State committee from 1954-1956 and was elected to represent Maine’s 2nd District in the U.S. Congress in 1956 and again in 1958.

Although he lost a bid for governor in 1960, Coffin became the managing director of the U.S. Development Loan Fund. President John F. Kennedy planned to appoint him as U.S. ambassador to Panama, but was assassinated before Coffin’s nomination could be approved.

Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, appointed Coffin not to Panama, but as deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the first U.S. foreign assistance organization focused on long-range economic and social development. Coffin was based in Paris, and served there in 1964 and 1965.

When there was a vacancy on the 1st Circuit in 1965, Muskie nominated Coffin, and Johnson appointed him. Coffin served as chief judge from 1972 to 1983 and later served as senior circuit judge. He heard approximately 2,500 cases during his career, and was known as someone who could forge a consensus and get things done because of the enormous respect people had for him.

Lipez said Coffin was also highly regarded in national legal circles. People were not only impressed with Coffin’s intellect, but by his humility and humanity. 

“When I would travel around the country and people found out I was from Maine, they were always asking me, ‘Do you know Judge Coffin? How is Judge Coffin?’,” he said. “It was clear to me that he was not just a treasure in Maine, but he was a national treasure as well.”

When Coffin announced his retirement in 2005, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, a former colleague on the 1st Circuit, had this to say about Coffin’s influence as a judge: “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 allowed Coffin to spend more time with his family, work on a multi-volume memoir (which he completed shortly before his death), and practice his avocation as a carver in wood and soft stone. He was especially fond of reading aloud to his wife, Ruth, whose deteriorating eyesight made it difficult to read on her own.

Barbara Riegelhaupt, who worked as Coffin’s law clerk for about 20 years, said Coffin and his wife were role models for many law clerks. Her former boss had the ability to walk through a courthouse and instantly connect with anyone, Riegelhaupt said. 

“He had an extraordinary combination of attributes, both personally and professionally,” the Cape Elizabeth resident said. “It was an opportunity of a lifetime to have been able to spend so much time with him.”

Isabel Bjork, another former Coffin clerk who is now an attorney for Pierce Atwood in Great Britain, said the example Coffin set in his own life has inspired her to become a better person.

“Certainly the integrity with which he lived his life makes me feel a responsibility to live life better, appreciate more, and be more responsible,” Bjork said.

Although Coffin was known for his intelligence, work ethic and character on the bench, he was also known in legal circles as as a prankster, author, artist and loving family man. 

While Coffin’s death is a tremendous loss for the legal community, many will take comfort in the fact that he lived a full life. 

“You can’t have regrets,” Riegelhaupt said. “He lived the perfect life, the life we all aspire to.” 

When asked about the qualities that make a good judge, Coffin once said most of those characteristics are obvious, like basic integrity, a competence in the law, a willingness to work hard, and respecting procedure.

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who is a former Coffin law clerk, once said about the judge: “I have never met a man I admired more. His deep commitment to the public good, his record of achievement in all three branches of government, his strong moral compass, his love of his family and friends, and his wit and intellect, constitute the best model of a public life I know.” 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

Sidebar Elements


Judge Frank M. Coffin, one of the few people to have served in all three branches of the federal government, in his Portland chambers in September 2005. Coffin, a longtime South Portland resident and Lewiston native, died Monday at age 90.Judge Frank M. Coffin, who served 40 years on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, died Monday, Dec. 7, at age 90.

‘The Ways of a Judge’

Here are some of Judge Frank M. Coffin’s accomplishments: 

• Served on Sen. Muskie’s Maine Commission of Legal Needs, culminating in a 1990 report detailing unmet legal needs.

• Collaborated with Robert Katzmann on “The Law Firm and the Public Good,” a book published in 1995 that details the benefits of pro-bono service.

• Chaired the Justice Action Group, an ad hoc planning body formed to guide initiatives to address access to justice in Maine, from 1995-2000.

• Formed a new legal aid provider, Maine Equal Justice Partners, to provide administrative and legislative advocacy for for low-income Mainers, in 1996.

• Established the Maine Civil Legal Services fund in 1997, which has generated more than $10 million for legal assistance.

• Developed the Coffin Fellowship for Family Law in 1998, which has given more than a dozen young lawyers the opportunity to serve in a two-year fellowship representing low-income Maine families and provided direct services to more than 665 client households.

• Created the Campaign for Justice in 2004, a unified fundraising effort for Maine’s six legal aid providers that has generated more than $1 million in contributions from the Maine legal community.

• Authored two books about the federal appellate judiciary, “The Ways of a Judge” and “On Appeal.”

Notable names react

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer:

“Frank Coffin was a fine judge, a wonderful colleague, and a thoroughly decent human being. He took law and life seriously in the best possible way, namely with a light touch and a charming sense of humor. He contributed valuably and continuously to the communities where he worked and lived. Like all who knew Frank, I learned much from him. I was lucky indeed to spend 13 years with Frank as a member of the Court of Appeals. I think of him, and his lovely family, often. I shall very much miss Frank, my colleague, my mentor, and my friend.”

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and former Republican Gov. John R. McKernan Jr.:

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Judge Coffin, a remarkable legal giant and judicial icon in Maine and the nation who served more than four decades on the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

“Highly regarded for his keen intellect, impeccable integrity, and strength of character, Judge Coffin was an inspiration to us all. He was not only a legal standard bearer, but also a dedicated public servant and a tireless steward for the common good whose commitment to legal services for low-income families was but one of the many enduring hallmarks of this truly distinguished jurist.

“Maine and the nation have lost an irreplaceable, much-admired, and beloved pillar of the law and the public trust who will be sorely missed. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, Ruth, and their family.”

Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley:

“For 60 years Judge Coffin was an extraordinary figure in Maine jurisprudence. He lead the way on critical issues of access to justice, assuring that Maine people who could not afford an attorney were not forgotten. His writings on topics relating to judging were cogent and accessible, and he wrote legal opinions that stand as superb examples of judicial writing.

“More than that, however, Frank was just a really wonderful man. His warmth and humor were a gift to all of us, and those of us who had privilege of knowing and working with him were grateful that such a unique judicial leader spent his career in Maine. He was a mentor and friend to generations of Maine lawyers and judges, including all of us on the Maine Supreme Court. We will miss him greatly. Our thoughts are with Ruth and the rest of his family at this sad time.”

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