Ellen J. Morphonios, 73; Idiosyncratic Judge

Times Staff Writer

The job as radio wedding expert was not the last one I would get because of my blond hair and big boobs.

-- Ellen Morphonios in her book "Maximum Morphonios: The Life and Times of America's Toughest Judge"

*

She was blond and buxom. Once a legitimate beauty queen, she had been Coconut Harvest Maiden and Mrs. South Florida.

And for years she was "Lady Ellen," dispensing advice on late-night talk radio.

But she became best known as "the hanging judge" and "the time machine" for the long sentences she dispensed -- 60 years for a robber for whom state law recommended nine to 12, then 420 years for another, 1,197 years for another and -- for one -- a whopping 1,678. She sentenced at least 15 culprits to death.

Ellen James Morphonios, the colorful Florida judge who signed her decrees in lavender ink, kept a toy electric chair in her chambers next to a diapered chimp named Toto and congratulated a rape victim for shooting her attacker in the groin by saying "Nice shot," has died. She was 73.

Morphonios died Sunday in Miami, where she had served 21 years as a judge. The cause was stomach cancer.

"It's just not like her to die," said a friend and former assistant, Anne Cates. "She was always a fighter."

By the time Morphonios published her book, written with the help of Miami Herald writer Mike Wilson, in 1991, she had amassed a wealth of experience.

And, although she never sat on a bench anywhere outside Dade County, Fla., she built a national following, thanks to profiles on NBC Nightly News, CBS' "60 Minutes" and in such magazines as People Weekly.

Morphonios grew up poor, in a one-room shack without electricity or running water in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. But she was the much-loved only child of a frank-speaking woman and a Montana-born farmer and roofer who taught her to fish and hunt and to believe in his credo, "Don't ever be satisfied with what you got.... There's more down the road." He moved the family to Miami, where he became a cab driver during her senior year in high school.

Bright as well as pretty, Morphonios never went to college but got a job in radio and became a secretary in a law office. She started modeling, then got married and started having babies.

With an IQ high enough to become a member of Mensa (limited to about 2% of the population), Morphonios was admitted to the University of Miami law school after taking a college equivalency test.

About 1960, after practicing law privately for several years, she joined the state attorney's office as Florida's first female felony prosecutor and soon became a star in the courtroom.

Her highest-profile case was probably that of rock star Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors.

Morphonios prosecuted Morrison for allegedly exposing himself in front of 10,000 people at a 1969 concert in Miami, winning convictions for indecent exposure and use of profanity.

The verdicts were appealed, but Morrison died in 1971, before higher courts could act on the appeals.

Morphonios ran for county judge in 1970 and got elected. She stayed until 1991 when she stepped down in Operation Court Broom, when three judicial colleagues were convicted in a bribery scandal. Morphonios was investigated but never charged.

She returned to work briefly in 1997 as a part-time judge but quit when Florida's Judicial Qualifications Commission wanted to question her anew about why she hadn't reported an alleged bribe attempt.

Criminals, particularly those charged with violent acts, mostly feared Morphonios. But her colleagues, even lawyers on the losing side, respected her. In a 1989 Dade County Bar Assn. survey, 34% of lawyers rated her "exceptionally qualified" and 53% called her "qualified" for her job.

"She's the toughest sentencing judge I've faced, but she's also the fairest I've ever known," former Public Defender Carl Masztal told People in 1989. "In her Darth Vader robe, she's God throwing thunderbolts. But I've never seen her send an innocent man to prison."

Along with her memberships in Mensa and the National Organization for Women, Morphonios belonged to the National Rifle Assn. She owned half a dozen rifles and a pistol that she sometimes carried under her robes.

In 1990, when only 3% of the NRA membership consisted of women, Morphonios was invited to address its convention in Anaheim. She delighted the audience by referring to rehabilitation for criminals as "a myth," sentencing guidelines as "a joke" and plea bargaining as "an abomination."

She also called a then-recent California ban on semiautomatic weapons "a silly little gun law" and predicted that criminals would ignore it. Nevertheless, the law-abiding jurist advised gun owners to obey the California law and to "send your guns to a relative in Alabama."

Morphonios' language on and off the bench was salty. Quotable as she was, her pronouncements were often difficult for mainstream media to print or air.

"Written in the spicy style of Argosy, True or the Police Gazette, circa 1959," a Times reviewer wrote of her book in 1991, "it is not without a certain questionable charm."

So tough in the courtroom she once ordered a defendant to "step over the body" of a woman who had fainted before her, Morphonios off the bench was as warm and fuzzy as her menagerie of dogs, cats and chimpanzee. She made what court clerks, bailiffs, lawyers and other judges called the world's best coffee -- spiked with a touch of cinnamon -- and always had candy and cookies available for the daily stream of visitors. She crocheted doilies for her lavender office and afghans for her employees.

Thrice divorced, Morphonios was married to the man she referred to as "Husband No. 1," a teacher and dog breeder whose surname she kept ever after, for 21 years; to "No. 2" for two years; and to "No. 3" for five.

She is survived by two sons, Dean and Dale Morphonios; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Asked by Harry Reasoner when she appeared on "60 Minutes" more than a decade ago what she would like inscribed on her tombstone, Morphonios replied easily: "It may not make sense to you, but it does to me. I would want it to say 'She was a stand-up broad.' "

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°