Chief Judge of COA making name for himself nationally

 By Cynthia Price

Legal News
William B. Murphy’s position as head of the Michigan Court of Appeals (COA) will end in January 2015, but he will continue to be immersed in “Chief Judge” issues for years thereafter.
Murphy was elected as 2014 treasurer of the Council of Chief Judges of the State Courts of Appeal, the first step in a succession that will see him serve as president in 2017 and immediate past president the following year. The 33-year-old national association is affiliated with the National Center for State Courts. 
“The primary purpose of the Council is consultation and education with a particular focus on the responsibilities of chief judges,” Judge Murphy explains. 
“The Council has a slogan, ‘Once a chief judge, always a chief judge,’ so even after they retire, everyone is welcome to continue their involvement,” he says.
In addition, it would be difficult for most people to perform all the duties incumbent on a chief judge along with the increased responsibility of being an officer in the national organization. But Murphy gives the impression, however, that he could do it if anyone could. Measured and calm, he is full of kind words for others who assist him in keeping the Court of Appeals running smoothly.
“The support staff is what makes this court function,” he says, while also offering praise for the other COA judges.
In fact, Murphy began his career as a law clerk to a COA judge in Detroit. Though he is originally from Champaign, Ill., Murphy attended Aquinas College in Grand Rapids before transferring to Michigan State University, from which he graduated in 1967. He then was accepted to Wayne State University Law School, serving on the Wayne Law Review and the Wayne Student Board of Directors, graduating cum laude.
After his clerkship, Murphy moved back to Grand Rapids and briefly worked for Rhoades McKee. He then started his own firm with two friends. At that time, he was president of what is now the Michigan Association for Justice, formerly the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association.
But the majority of his career has been spent as a COA judge, starting with his appointment by Gov. Jim Blanchard in 1988. He successfully ran for re-election four times, most recently in 2012. Along the way, he also made an unsuccessful 1996 run for the Michigan Supreme Court.
Murphy had a “rehearsal” for his eventual Chief Judge position when he was elected Chief Judge Pro Tem from 1992-96. He gained valuable experience helping Chief Judge Martin Doctoroff address the large backlog of cases.
The Michigan Supreme Court appointed him Chief Judge for his first term in late 2009 through 2011 and his second in January 2012 to December 2013. He was then asked to stay on for one additional year, 2014.
His service to the judicial profession has extended well beyond the call of duty. He has been a member of the Michigan delegation to the National Conference on Racial and Ethnic Bias and of the Michigan Justice Project. He has served the Michigan State Bar on its Open Justice Commission, as a State Bar commissioner, and as a trustee of the State Bar Foundation.
The challenges of serving in the capacity of chief judge include balancing the standard COA caseload with managing a staff of nearly 180 employees, including a monthly meeting with his administrative team consisting of managers of finance, research, security and technology, and the chief clerk, currently Jerome Zimmer Jr.
With seven judges from each of its four districts, the COA has offices in Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids, and Troy. By design, the geographic origin of the judges bears no relation to where the case on appeal took place. Murphy must also ensure timely disposition of an ever-increasing caseload; handle the administrative motion docket; and, in particular, serve as a liaison with the legislature. 
“My biggest challenge, frankly, has been to deal with the legislature to see that we receive adequate appropriations, and with our own structure to see that we’re operating in a responsible and appropriate manner,” Murphy says. “And there is also keeping the morale of our staff up during this process.”
Not surprisingly, budget constraints pose the chief judge’s most daunting challenge.
Murphy explains that the legislature previously enacted a law that would reduce the number of COA judges, but he wonders if that will be changed on account of the recent decision to move the state Court of Claims to the COA.
“We’re really gearing up for that and I’ve already been meeting with the four judges who’ve been assigned to the Court of Claims, including Michael Talbot, who’s the chief judge,” Murphy says. “It’s been a substantial demand on the time of the court and on those four judges, a fair amount on our staff, and some on myself. Candidly, it’s a bit of a work in progress; we’re just going to have to monitor it and see what the demands are.”
Meeting additional demands on time with shrinking budgets is a top challenge for all of the judges in the Council of Chief Judges of the State Courts of Appeal, and that is one reason Murphy originally became involved.
“Every state is different – but some of the problems are common to all of us,” he says. “I always try not to have to reinvent the wheel, so being able to consult with the other chief judges has been invaluable. It’s a good organization, and I think we’ve been able to contribute something to it.”
In the first months after Murphy became chief judge, he asked the National Center for State Courts, which he called “the gold standard for evaluating court operations,” to conduct an assessment of the Michigan COA. 
“If you don’t measure, you can’t manage,” he observes. “If you don’t know where the problem is in the system, if you don’t know where the delay is, how can you address the problem?”
Nevertheless, the Center’s report was glowing, including such praise as “It is unusual for a court to manage its business processes so well,” and “... the Michigan Court of Appeals stands out as a well managed and smoothly functioning appellate court, especially in a period of shrinking budgetary resources.” 
Murphy believes that is one reason he was called upon to participate in the Council of Chief Judges of the State Courts of Appeal. Thirty-three of the 39 states with intermediate appellate courts are members of the Council, which charges dues based on the population of the state represented. The Council holds an annual meeting and operates a web-based forum where chief judges from around the country can benefit from the expertise of others. Its website is
Murphy expects that the time involved will ramp up until his term as president begins, but he already is quite active in the organization. He currently is serving on a national work group which will release a report this month on time standards for intermediate courts and courts of last resort.

Subscribe to the Legal News!
Full access to public notices, articles, columns, archives, statistics, calendar and more
Day Pass Only $4.95!
One-County $80/year
Three-County & Full Pass also available