After Maurice Cohill Jr. '51 performed his usual humorous monologue as "Princeton Charlie" at a football game in 1950, Ed Sullivan asked him to appear on his show. Cohill, a cheerleader at the time, accepted the offer. He performed his routine as an introduction for the Triangle Club, which then followed his act.
Cohill's days as an undergraduate and cheerleader for the nationally recognized Princeton football team are long over, and for the past 27 years he has been a federal judge. In addition, his work in establishing the National Center for Juvenile Justice has earned him a prestigious Jefferson Award.
Born in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Cohill attended Mercersburg Academy and then Princeton. As a history major, he wrote his senior thesis on business and the New Deal. While his father had always wanted him to be a lawyer, he thought he would be a stockbroker.
An unusual start
After Princeton, as the result of a plan similar to today's ROTC, Cohill spent several years in the Marine Corps.
When another marine asked Cohill to represent him at his disciplinary hearing, Cohill's career in law began, though he didn't realize it at the time.
"Being young and foolish, I said sure and got him off," he said.
As a result, other marines asked for his defense, and Cohill's success at their hearings sparked his interest in law.
His ability to effectively defend members of the Marine Corps convinced Cohill to go to law school, and he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh Law School in 1956. From there, he went to work at the biggest law firm in Pittsburgh at the time, Kirkpatrick, Pomeroy, Lockhart and Johnson.
After nine years at the law firm, Cohill was elected to a 10-year position as a judge in juvenile court. He describes juvenile court as a difficult but significant position.
"For a while, I was running through 30 to 40 cases a day," Cohill said. "I would work nine to nine with no stop for lunch."
Cohill also notes the differences between being a lawyer and a judge.
"It's like comparing apples and oranges," Cohill said. "The vast majority of lawyers never see the inside of a courtroom."
In 1973, Cohill founded the National Center for Juvenile Justice, a center located in Pittsburgh designed to research juvenile issues.
"Some other judges and I always felt the juvenile system was misunderstood," Cohill said. "Everybody's got a solution . . . but nobody really knows."
A research arm of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the NCJJ remains responsible for its own fundraising. Initially, Cohill agreed to raise the money needed for the center if the council in turn would locate the institution in Pittsburgh. Cohill said they accepted because "no one likes to raise money."
Though the center started with four employees and a budget of "a couple hundred thousand dollars," Cohill said, it now boasts 37 employees and a budget of $4 million. Yet, the road to success was anything but smooth.
At the outset, the center received a large portion of its budget from the government. But, after six years of financial support from the government, the NCJJ decided to become private.
"We got some money from them, but the government can put in a lot of obstacles," Cohill said. "We decided to cut the umbilical cord with the government after six years of help."
Cohill takes pride in the success of the center, noting that today it is the premiere research organization on juvenile justice. In addition, the archives of the center are home to approximately 20 million cases.
Cohill remains involved as the chairman of the Board of Fellows. Yet, he is modest about his work.
"I can't really take credit for it," Cohill said, as he praised Hunter Hurst, the center's director and very first employee.
Today, the father of four, grandfather of five, and great-grandfather of six is in his 27th year as a senior U.S. district judge. Appointed by President Gerald Ford at the start of Cohill's second 10-year term as a juvenile judge, Cohill said he enjoys federal court more than juvenile court.
"I really love federal court. I love working there more than juvenile court because juvenile can be heart-wrenching," he said. "But, I felt like I was doing more good in juvenile court."
Cohill's most controversial — and most well-known — case as a federal judge stretched from 1976 to the early 1990s when he forced the Allegheny County commissioner to build a new jail by setting a cap on the number of inmates at the old jail, freeing prisoners who could not make bond.
Cohill said many talk show hosts were angry with him, but he maintains that if they had seen the conditions of the overcrowded jail, they would have felt differently.
"Having done what I felt was right despite being controversial was a good feeling," Cohill said.
Not without a downside
Cohill is acutely aware of the pain that sometimes comes with being a judge. He quickly named the sentencing process as the worst part of his work. With the children of the convicted often sitting in the front row crying, he said, "They don't make it easier for you." But, he also said the U.S. sentencing guidelines are very strict and do not offer much discretion to the judges.
"If you want to depart outside these guidelines, you have to give a pretty good reason," Cohill said.
In addition, judges are not paid as much as lawyers in large law firms. Despite these drawbacks to his job, Cohill said being a judge "is just wonderful" and called it "rewarding work."
On Jan. 23, Cohill, along with six others, received a Jefferson Award and $1,000 for the center. Because of his work at the NCJJ, he was initially named one of 48 Community Champions. The Community Champions were named weekly and appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This number was narrowed to seven Jefferson Award recipients.
Cohill realizes the changing nature of his center, as the problems of juveniles shift, often to drugs.
"On the crime side, it's drugs. It's not just kids; it's also parents," Cohill said.
Though he says he agrees that many juvenile problems can be traced to their parents, he adds that the problems of the parents are not necessarily their own faults.
As Cohill's work has changed, Princeton has as well. The most obvious change is the transition from an all male University to a coed one. Cohill has attended Reunions and experienced this change. Most recently, he returned for his 50th reunion in 2001.
"It's wonderful to say you went to Princeton, especially now that it's done so well in the U.S. News rankings," he said. "I don't know that I could get into Princeton today."