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Florence Bernstein; 1st Woman to Be Presiding Appellate Judge

December 06, 1991|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Florence Bernstein, the only woman to serve as presiding judge of the court's appellate department, has died. She was 70.

She died Wednesday at her Studio City home of cancer.

She had retired last April on her 70th birthday, but continued to handle cases by special assignment. She had been hearing pretrial civil arguments in the court's Santa Monica branch until a week before her death.

An activist and feminist who was a strong ally of ousted California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, Judge Bernstein got to the bench the hard way: She campaigned against an incumbent judge and was elected. Most judges in California are appointed and have to stand for reelection only in the rare event that someone opposes them. Candidates--who must be lawyers--usually run for a seat left vacant by a retirement rather than battle an incumbent.

She campaigned with the slogans "Go with the Flo" and "Put a Mensch on the Bench" in 1976 and won by a landslide. After only one year on the Municipal Court, she won quick elevation by appointment of Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. to the Superior Court.

Known as a liberal throughout her career, she angered prosecutors in 1981 with her wholesale dismissal of 34 people arrested in Malibu for nude sunbathing on grounds they had not received speedy trials.

"If the community of Malibu is serious about arresting nude sunbathers," she told the Los Angeles Times after the court hearing, "then it must make a more serious and more diligent effort to give a jury trial to those defendants who request one."

In addition to serving in the court's appellate department, which reviews cases from Municipal Court, Judge Bernstein served many years as the decider of defendants' mental competence to stand trial. She also served for four years as chairwoman of the state Judicial Administration Committee and one year as chairwoman of the Center for Judicial Education and Research.

Born and raised in New York, she moved to California in 1957, becoming an attorney in 1964. She served six years as a deputy public defender and then defended indigent clients for another six years in private practice. She happily described her work as "tilting at windmills . . . to help poor people."

Widowed in 1982 by the death of Stanley Bernstein, she married Paul Morris in 1985.

She is also survived by two sons, Mark and David Bernstein, a brother, Jerry Schneider, stepdaughter Stacey Morris, and one granddaughter, Jessica Bernstein.

The family has asked that any memorial contributions be made to the National Organization for Women.

Services are scheduled for 2 p.m. today at Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles.

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