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.’”
So Deehl turned him down. He also never tried for Circuit Court, because he liked County Court.
In 1992, Deehl transitioned from “active’’ to “senior,’’ filling in as needed on the bench.
“I have no regrets. I’ve had a great life,” he told the Review. “I don’t know how much longer I’ve got, but I’ll enjoy each day.”
Deehl tried to teach young lawyers and University of Miami law students, in litigation skills classes, both humility and efficiency.
Eleventh Circuit Judge Don Cohn, a longtime friend, said he still tries to keep Deehl in mind when he’s on the bench.
“I try to remember things he said, and that I need to act the way he acted,’’ said Cohn. “He used to say that unless you can explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand it yourself. He’d take a very complicated situation and narrow it down to something you could understand, and he was on even keel all the time.’’
He could be “fatherly’’ from the bench, said Cohn, telling young prostitutes that they would end up in a bad way if they didn’t leave the streets.
“He always tried to see beyond the particular case to the individual...You knew he was sincere. He really cared about people. He was a very vibrant spirit. You trusted him.’’
State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle recalled Deehl’s courtroom as “a classroom for all of us on how to act as a trial lawyer — a law school PhD’’ in the days when law schools didn’t teach such things.
She said that he told young lawyers not to take shortcuts, but to “do it right...He was good on the law, he did his homework, he would rule with kindness and dignity.’’
Deehl refused to “suck up to lawyers’’ for campaign contributions, his son said. Instead, he used GI Bill benefits to buy real estate. Over time he accumulated enough to “plunk down $100,000 in a bank account’’ before every election, which would scare off opponents.
Deehl didn’t like Bar Association judicial evaluation polls, and wrote several letters to the editor of the Miami Herald about them.
In 1984 he wrote: “It is certainly no secret that most funds in judicial races come from attorneys, law firms, bail bondsmen, and others who want a friend in the court. Fortunately, most judges after being elected can be fair and impartial. But some would contend that a decision in a close factual matter would go to the contributor and against the attorney who contributed to his opponent even though that may not have been the case...”
“Merely putting on the black robe does not a judge make. Many years of judicial experience and continuing judicial education mold a qualified person into a good judge.”
In addition to his son, Deehl is survived by daughters Janet Deehl Schwartz and Theresa Miller. He will be buried next to his wife in Miami.
Memorial services are pending. The family suggests donations in his memory to the Unitarian Universalist Church, the University of Miami’s School of Law trial skills program, and History Miami, which will receive his papers.