Senior Judge Robert Marion Deehl had a reputation among the lawyers who appeared in his court as being both tough and kind.
Even some defendants thought so, like the young man who wrote to him on Dec. 18, 1968, in care of the Miami Elks lodge to which Deehl belonged, inviting him over for Christmas.
“Since His Honor was kind enough to see I had a roof over my head for this the holiday week, I would appreciate your conveying to him my sincerest desire to have him join me for the holidays from now through Christmas,’’ the defendant wrote. “Such time to be spent in prayer and meditation without worldly interruption’’ — at the county jail.
He signed off: “Allah be praised! Muhammad Ali.’’
The Champ, as quick witted as he was fast footed, was cooling his heels in the lockup for driving on a suspended license, an offense that commonly carried jail time in those days.
But when a reporter asked Ali how he felt about Deehl, he said: “I may be king of the ring, but he is king of his courtroom.’’
Deehl, among the longest-serving judges ever in Miami-Dade County, with 50 years on the bench, died Friday of kidney cancer at his vacation home in North Carolina. Born June 30, 1925, he would have turned 88 on Sunday.
A widower since the death of his wife, Catherine Deehl, in 2000, the New Jersey native grew up in Miami, where he attended Citrus Grove Elementary School and Miami Senior High, playing French horn in the marching band.
After serving in the Pacific during World War II, first as a U.S. Navy aviation cadet, then with the Marine Corps, Deehl earned his law degree at the University of Florida.
He fought in the Battle of Okinawa with the First Marine Division, King Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, and later became a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army through ROTC at UF.
Deehl, raised in a secular Jewish home — his parents ran a kosher butcher shop near the old Orange Bowl — found himself drawn to the Unitarian Universalist Church because “he liked the nonjudgmental approach and the search for truth,’’ son David Deehl said.
He was an Exalted Ruler of the Miami Elks Lodge BPOE, and a Shriner.
Deehl was appointed to the Metropolitan Court in 1964, then became a County Judge when metropolitan courts were abolished. He served until the spring of 2013, handling bond hearings for those arrested at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival in March.
During an interview in April with the Daily Business Review, Deehl said he was finally stepping down because of ill health.
He recalled that after graduating in 1949, he returned to Miami and joined his family’s attorney’s practice, handling real estate matters and divorces as well as criminal cases.
“Somebody got arrested for drunk driving. I would do that. I enjoy going to court,” he told the Review.
In the early ’50s, a fellow member of the Elks lodge, newly-elected State Attorney Richard Gerstein, offer Deehl the chance to head his office’s capital crimes division.
“It was a very prestigious job in that office,’’ Deehl told the Review. “I said, ‘Well, how much does it pay?’ He said, ‘$8,000 a year.’ I said, ‘Dick, I can’t live on $8,000 a year. My kids are going to school.’”