Crime

U.S. District Judge Jennifer Coffman to retire from the bench

When she turns 65 next January, Jennifer B. Coffman will step down as chief U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Kentucky and as a U.S. district judge for the Western District. She became Kentucky's first female federal judge in 1993 and its first female chief judge in 2007.
When she turns 65 next January, Jennifer B. Coffman will step down as chief U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Kentucky and as a U.S. district judge for the Western District. She became Kentucky's first female federal judge in 1993 and its first female chief judge in 2007. Herald-Leader

She might take a Spanish immersion course, teach a seminar at the University of Kentucky law school or do a little fund-raising after Jan. 8, but Jennifer Coffman says she no longer will be a federal judge.

"I did that already," she said Wednesday.

Coffman, the chief U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Kentucky and a U.S. district judge for the Western District of Kentucky, sent a letter of resignation to President Barack Obama on Jan. 8, her 64th birthday. Her resignation from the federal bench is to be effective the day she turns 65.

"I just want to leave before people say, 'Oh, gosh, I wish she'd get off that bench,'" she said.

In fall 1993, Coffman made history when she became the first female federal judge in Kentucky. Since then, she's presided over marijuana smuggling, murder-for-hire and even bingo cases, and a number of civil cases.

She made history again in 2007 when she became the first female chief federal judge in the state.

People might think that an unsuccessful legal fight by Pulaski and McCreary counties to post copies of the Ten Commandments in their courthouses, a battle that took more than 11 years and two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, was the most memorable case over which Coffman has presided.

But Coffman said that without a doubt the most noteworthy case was the one involving the theft of rare books from Transylvania University. She sentenced four young men, Charles Allen, Eric Borsuk, Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard, to prison for stealing rare books — including a first edition of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, naturalist John James Audubon's Synopsis of the Birds of North America and an illuminated manuscript from the 15th century — from the Transylvania library in late 2004. The case drew national attention.

Sentencing for the men, who pleaded guilty, took about 10 hours, and the courtroom was overflowing with spectators, she said. The defendants "were young. There were difficult issues throughout the case," she said. Coffman received more mail about the book heist than any other case, she said.

"I got letters from librarians all over the United States," said Coffman, who has a master's degree in library science.

"The most difficult thing I do is sentencings," she said. "You just want to make sure you're right when dealing with people's lives."

Coffman said her most challenging work on the bench has been dealing with complex civil cases.

It won't do any good to ask the judge about rulings and opinions she's issued from the bench.

"I'll just let my opinions speak for themselves," she said.

She also won't talk about what she does as a member of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has required several weeklong visits to Washington, D.C. She'll be stepping down from that post as well.

As a "swing" judge, Coffman first divided her time between London and Owensboro, then between London and Louisville, and finally between Louisville and Lexington. In addition to all of the travel, she's had to deal with threats on her life.

Coffman said she thinks she's been a fair and thorough judge. She said she expects attorneys to have done their homework when they come into her courtroom.

"I would be embarrassed if I were in a courtroom and I were not prepared," she said.

Former assistant U.S. attorney Marilyn Daniel said she "couldn't be prouder" of Coffman as Kentucky's first female federal judge.

"She has the intellect, the compassion, the legal knowledge and training that goes together to make someone especially suited for that kind of position. And she has filled it in an exemplary way," said Daniel, a friend of the judge.

UK legal counsel Barbara Jones, who considers herself Coffman's closest and dearest friend, said the judge has been a tremendous mentor to law clerks and considers it a very important role to train, teach and mentor young lawyers.

"She is a warm and generous person and shares her professional gifts generously," she said.

Coffman plans to turn over the reins as chief judge in the U.S. Eastern District of Kentucky to U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell in October, but she'll continue as a judge in both Kentucky federal judicial districts until her retirement.

Coffman, who is married to retired dentist Wes Coffman, said retirement plans include visiting their son, Will, a lobbyist in Washington, and daughter, Blair, who works for Pandora Internet Radio in San Francisco.

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