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


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

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