Detroit U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow, personable, good-humored and well respected on the bench, died Friday morning at Ford Hospital in Detroit where he was being treated for heart issues. He was 79.
"He had a remarkable dry sense of humor and was always thoughtful and genuine with exceptional demeanor," said criminal defense attorney Robert Morgan. "He was a human personification of the word rachmones (Yiddish for compassion and kindness), with no hint of pretense or privilege."
Nominated to the bench by President Bill Clinton in 1997 and confirmed by the Senate the following year, Tarnow presided over a number of high-profile civil rights, employment and criminal cases in 24 years as a judge. In one, he permanently sealed a black book listing thousands of customers for an escort service run by a husband and wife.
Another prominent case came in 1999 when he temporarily blocked a new state law banning partial birth abortions, and imposed a maximum penalty of up to life in prison for violations. In 2001, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar Nebraska law, Tarnow permanently enjoined the Michigan law from taking effect, according to obituary published on the court's website.
In 2010, he took senior status, but continued to carry a full load of cases.
“The legal community in Detroit has lost a giant, both as a federal judge and as a human
being,” U.S. District Judge Terrence Berg said in a story on the court's website.
“No one had a bigger heart, a sharper mind, or a quicker wit," Berg added. “Before Judge Tarnow the least among us stood on firm and equal footing with the rich and powerful. We will miss him very much.”
The Detroit News reports:
The Detroit native, the son of a successful electrical supply businessman, was raised in the affluent Boston Edison district. One neighbor was United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, whose chauffeur occasionally drove Tarnow to school in a bulletproof Packard.
A 1959 graduate of Mumford High School, he earned his undergraduate degree from Wayne State University in 1963 and law degree in 1965.
He became a legal instructor at the University of Melbourne Law School in Australia from 1965-66 and then clerked for a couple years for Michigan State Court of Appeals judges. He then was a lecturer in the law of contracts and sales for the University of Papua New Guinea Law School until 1970.
After that, he served as chief deputy Defender for the Legal Aid and Defenders Association of Detroit from 1970-72. In 1974, he went into private practice. In 1998, he took the bench.
"He was a guy who didn't care much about money, as evidenced by the fact he let me share space with him when I left the defender office in May 1976 with 50 cents in my pocket," said attorney and friend Steve Fishman.
The story on the court's website said Tarnow was concerned about the welfare of returning prisoners and met with them to reassure them that the Court’s probation officers were there to help rather than harass.
“I chose law, I think, to try to help people,” Tarnow told the Court’s historical society in a
He is survived by , wife Jacqueline, sons Tom and Andrew, two grandchildren, brother Robert and sister Adrienne Goldbaum. In recognition of Covid, the family is hoping to have a memorial gathering this summer.