The state’s political, legal and judicial communities Tuesday mourned the death of Frank M. Coffin at age 90.
The architect of the state’s modern Democratic Party, congressman, diplomat and federal appeals court judge for more than 40 years died Monday at Maine Medical Center in Portland from complications after surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm, according to Don Nicoll, a longtime friend.
“Judge Coffin was a compassionate man, a brilliant man and an icon,” Gov. John Baldacci said Tuesday.
“From my point of view, it’s the passing of an era,” U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby said Tuesday. “When I was a student at Harvard Law School in the late 1960s, one of my professors said that Judge Coffin was a new judge but already he was writing significant opinions.”
In addition to writing, Coffin was a painter and sculptor. He also championed legal services for the poor.
“He led the way on critical issues of access to justice, assuring that Maine people who could not afford an attorney were not forgotten,” Leigh I. Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, said Tuesday. “His writings on topics relating to judging were cogent and accessible, and he wrote legal opinions that stand as superb examples of judicial writing.”
Coffin wrote about 2,600 published and unpublished opinions. He also wrote several books about being an effective judge, which Hornby said “have influenced a generation of judges throughout the country.”
“He has been an example to all judges in terms of what a judge can be,” Hornby said. “He was a perfect gentleman and defined that term in ways that the rest of us are trying to live up to.”
“Frank was just a really wonderful man,” she said. “His warmth and humor were a gift to all of us, and those of us who had the 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.”
Coffin was the first law clerk in the state in the late 1940s, according to retired Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Clifford of Lewiston. After he graduated from law school, Coffin clerked for Clifford’s uncle, U.S. District Judge John Clifford.
On Nov. 6, Coffin spoke at a portrait hanging ceremony to honor John Clifford at the federal courthouse in Portland, according to Robert Clifford. It most likely was Coffin’s last public appearance.
Coffin maintained an unusually close relationship with his own law clerks, William J. Kayatta Jr., a Portland lawyer, who clerked for Coffin from 1979 to 1980, said Tuesday. Every three years, Coffin held a reunion of his law clerks. Lawyers from all over the world came to Maine this past summer to mark Coffin’s 90th birthday, Kayatta said.
“As a young lawyer just out of law school, it was easy to think that what makes a great lawyer is being brilliant,” Kayatta said when asked what he learned during his year clerking for Coffin. “When you spend a year with someone as brilliant as Judge Coffin, you see that in addition to his brilliance, it is the wisdom and common sense he brings to bear in all his decisions that makes him remarkable.”
Coffin’s most lasting legacy in his native state may be the Frank M. Coffin Fellows Project, administered by the Maine Bar Foundation. The Coffin fellows are selected to serve two-year terms to represent low-income parties in family law cases.
“He leaves an inspiring legacy to the lawyers of tomorrow,” Peter Pitegoff, dean of the University of Maine School of Law in Portland, said Tuesday. “His wisdom and intelligence, his commitment to social justice and public service, his kindness and wit, his personal warmth — we remember and aspire to all these attributes. We mourn the loss of a dear friend and celebrate his amazing life.”
Coffin was born in Lewiston in 1919. He served in all three branches of the federal government — the legislative, the executive and the judicial. He served on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals from 1965 to his retirement in 2006.
He earned degrees from Bates College and Harvard Business School before serving in the U.S. Navy in World War II. After the war, Coffin earned his law degree from Harvard and became a trial attorney, but also devoted his time and talent to politics in the early to mid-1950s.
Working with Edmund S. Muskie, Coffin helped reinvigorate the Democratic Party, ending 100 years of Republican dominance with Muskie’s election as governor in 1954 and Coffin’s election two years later to Congress, said Nicoll, who served under Coffin in the House and later under Muskie in the Senate.
If Muskie was the George Washington of the modern Democratic Party in Maine, then Frank M. Coffin was the Thomas Jefferson, Paul Mills, a Farmington lawyer and amateur historian, said Tuesday. Over the years, Mills recorded many hours of conversations with Coffin, according to Mills’ sister state Attorney General Janet Mills.
“He was a delightful individual, a great judge, an outstanding intellect and legal writer who epitomized the ‘judicial temperament,’” Janet Mills said Tuesday. “Yet he was down-to-earth, generous and compassionate.
“I encountered Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Washington last March,” she said, “and she spoke with great fondness of Judge Coffin and noted that they still carried on an e-mail correspondence, which she very much enjoyed. He made the same impression on everyone he met. I think he was the Will Rogers of the legal world, who never met a man — or woman — he didn’t like … and who didn’t like him in turn.”
Coffin is survived by his wife, Ruth Coffin, and four children.
Funeral plans were pending Tuesday evening.
Significant dates in the life of Frank M. Coffin
1919 — Born in Lewiston
1940 — Graduated from Bates College
1943 — Graduated from Harvard Business School
1943-46 — Served in U.S. Navy in Pacific theater
1947 — Graduated from Harvard Law School
1954-56 — Served as chairman of the Maine Democratic Party
1957-60 — Served as U.S. representative from Maine’s 2nd District
1960 — Lost gubernatorial race to Republican John H. Reed
1961-65 — Worked for international aid agencies funded by U.S. government
1965 — Appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
1970 — Awarded Edwin T. Dahlberg Peace Award by American Baptist Convention
1989 — Assumed senior status on 1st Circuit court
2001 — Awarded Edward J. Devitt Award for federal judges
2004 — Maine School of Law established Frank M. and Ruth Coffin Fund for Law and Public Service
2006 — First Maine native to receive Morton A. Brody Award; retired from federal bench
2008 — Honored by Maine Bar Foundation for his work advocating for low-income Mainers
2009 — Dies in Portland at age 90