Ex-Detroiter Marcia Cooke, Florida's First Black Female Federal Judge, Dies at 68

January 27, 2023, 11:08 PM by  Allan Lengel

Judge Marcia Cooke (Photo: Florida International University)

Marcia G. Cooke, a former federal magistrate judge in Detroit who eventually became a federal judge in Miami, and handled high profile cases including the infamous “dirty bomber,” died Friday in Detroit after battling health issues in the past year. She was 68.

Cooke, a staunch Democrat, was appointed to the bench in Miami in 2004 by President George W. Bush and was confirmed by the Senate 96-0. She was the first Black female federal judge in Florida.

Cooke had inoperable cancer, and then last year underwent surgery in Florida for a pulmonary embolism after a trip to Australia, according to friends. She made a miraculous recovery from the surgery, but fell ill during a Christmas trip to Detroit, a town she never lost touch with, returning often for the holidays to see relatives and friends. She stepped down after her illness made it too challenging to remain on the bench.

Cooke was well regarded on the bench by prosecutors and defense attorneys in both Detroit and Miami. She was seen as a fair, smart, unpretentious judge with a good sense of humor, who never forgot her Detroit roots.

“She was an incredibly lovely, sweet, funny and strong person,” said Detroit criminal Defense attorney Robert Morgan.

Detroit criminal defense attorney Sanford Plotkin, who knew Cooke well recalled her “infectious laugh that sometimes I can still hear in my head to this day that brings a big smile to my face. She could humanize the federal courthouse, which federal benches sorely lack. They could use more Marcia Cooke's."  

Cooke graduated from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in 1975 and went on to obtain a law degree from Wayne State University two years later.

She soon became a staff attorney for Neighborhood Legal Services in Michigan and in 1979 became deputy public defender of the Legal Aid and Defender Association in Michigan.

From 1980 to 1983, Cooke worked as an assistant U.S. Attorney in Detroit and then went to work briefly in private practice. From 1984 to 1992, she worked as a federal magistrate judge in Detroit.

In 1992, she went to work for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami as director of professional development and training and later became executive assistant U.S. Attorney.

She served as chief inspector general for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. After that, in 2002, she worked for two years as an assistant county attorney in Miami-Dade County. In 2004, she became a federal judge in Miami.

One of her first nationally-known cases in Miami involved Jose Padilla, aka the “dirty bomber,” who was initially held in military custody. He was eventually given a civilian trial before Cooke.

He was convicted by a Miami jury of plotting to release a radiological bomb in the U.S. and initially sentenced by Cooke in 2007 to 17 years. The 11th Circuit Court later ruled that the sentenced should have been harsher due to certain factors, and Cooke added four more years.

The Miami Herald reports:

If Padilla thought he had no legal rights in military custody, he quickly learned that federal court before Judge Cooke was a far different place. She immediately ordered the government not to shackle Padilla or the other two defendants during their court appearances on terrorism conspiracy charges. She ordered federal prosecutors to turn over final — not rough — translations of surveillance transcripts and other critical evidence to lawyers for Padilla and his co-defendants. She ordered the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to provide a bigger conference room for those attorneys to meet with their clients, who were in solitary confinement at the Miami Federal Detention Center, to prepare for trial.

Cooke always loved to talk to friends in Detroit to stay abreast of the goings-on in the community.

Metro Detroiter Missy Handler, a close friend of Cooke's for many years, said:

"I had the privilege of knowing Marcia as a friend for over 30 years. She was so smart and well accomplished but at the same time, down to earth. She had the best sense of humor and a laugh that I’ll never forget. When I think of Marcia, I will always smile and be proud to have called her my friend."

Close friend, attorney Ron Siegel of Metro Detroit, was heartbroken Friday. He and his wife Caryn Satovsky-Siegel, were very close with Cooke, who was their son Reid’s godmother.

“I am just devastated beyond words over the loss of my dear friend of 40 years (and Reid's Godmother) Judge Marcia Cooke," Siegel posted on Facebook Friday night. "After battling cancer and other illnesses over the last year, and making a valiant effort to go to Baltimore to, as she vowed, "dance with my Godson at his wedding," she lost her battle with that goddamn dreaded disease, and I am so grateful that I got to spend time with her yesterday to tell her that I love her and to feel her squeeze my hand to let me know that she knew I was with her. I hope God has plans for her, because he'll never get anyone better.”

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