Miami-Dade County Court Judge Don S. Cohn remembers the news photographers with their popping flashbulbs. He was 5 years old — and awed.
The subject of the press’ attention: his grandfather, a prominent attorney in the small Connecticut town where Cohn grew up. A man was accused of raping and killing a young woman on her way to a 4-H club meeting. As the reporters and photographers peppered his grandfather with questions and the camera bulbs flashed, it cemented a goal in the boy’s mind.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is pretty cool. I want to do this for a living,’ ” Cohn said.
His focus remained fixed as he studied political science at the University of Connecticut and studied law at the University of Miami. “I always knew I wanted to do criminal defense.”
When he got his law degree in 1975, he went to work for Max Engel, a private practitioner, and stayed with him for eight years until he and another associate decided to form their own firm. Three years later, they dissolved the firm in 1986, and Cohn went out on his own.
He followed his boyhood dream for 31 years before he took the bench, focusing on criminal defense for some “95 to 98 percent” of his cases.
Several of them brought the reporters and photographers to question him the same way he had seen them do with his grandfather. Among his most notable cases were the “Love Bandit,” Fernando Cuneo, accused of seducing several women into handing over their cash, then leaving them to seek out the next victim; John Longo, who married and divorced the same woman four times and eventually pleaded guilty to running her over and killing her; and former Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Philip S. Davis, accused of embezzling tens of thousands of dollars in government grants.
Intimidation On High
He even had a case in Bermuda while it was still an English colony and had to wear the colonial-style white wig. His client was kept in a glass box across the room, away and apart from his lawyer. It gave Cohn a fresh appreciation of the U.S. justice system.
“I was so very grateful when I came back to this country,” he said. “There are mistakes made in the justice system and things of that nature, but it really taught me.”
Miami criminal defense attorney Robert Barrar said Cohn built a reputation for diligence, fairness and honesty.
“His word is his bond,” Barrar said. “Everybody respected him.”
In 2006, Cohn decided to run for judge.
“I felt that I had reached basically all my goals as a lawyer. I practiced on the state level. I had done criminal defense. I had practiced in federal court. I had practiced in jurisdictions outside the state of Florida,” he said.
An equally important motivation came from what he witnessed in court. “I was practicing in front of some judges who I thought had forgotten why they were on the bench and had really forgotten how judges should act. The biggest majority had not forgotten, but there were some who had. I saw people that were coming to court, who were intimidated by judges. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Barrar said Cohn’s demeanor is one of his greatest assets.
“As a judge he has the patience of Job,” he said. “He lets both sides thoroughly argue their positions, which is what you want from a judge. You want somebody who will listen to both sides, give them ample opportunity to state their position and then make a ruling.”
Cohn’s experience as a trial attorney shapes his courtroom style and his judicial philosophy.
Facing skilled prosecutors “impresses upon you that you really have to be prepared when you go to courtroom,” he said. “When I have lawyers come in front of me I expect them to be prepared, too. It makes it so much easier to render a correct decision when you have lawyers in front of you who are prepared and who are professional.”
Representing clients before judges also taught him what he didn’t want to do from the other side of the bench.
“I heard judges talking about ‘my courtroom.’ It’s not their courtroom. It belongs to the public. It’s the people’s courtroom,” he said. “I took a sticky note the very first day, and I wrote ‘Don’t do those things as a judge you didn’t like judges doing as a lawyer.’ ”
Cohn handles domestic violence and traffic cases, as well as civil litigation involving less than $15,000.
“You have to follow the law. I truly believe that. But you have to follow it in a way where you are nice to people, you’re civil to people and they understand what you’re doing,” he said. He keeps in mind the advice a state Supreme Court justice gave him: “People will soon forget how you rule, but they will never forget how you treat them.”