Chief Judge Murphy shares Court of Appeals expertise nationally

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 Michigan Court of Appeals Chief Judge William Murphy, incoming treasurer of the Council of Chief Judges of the State Courts of Appeal

LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRIC

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

William B. Murphy’s position as Chief Judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals (COA) will end as of Jan. 1, 2015, but he will continue to be immersed in Chief Judge issues for years thereafter.

Chief Judge Murphy was elected as 2014 treasurer of the Council of Chief Judges of the State Courts of Appeal, the first step in a succession which will see him serving as president in 2017 and Immediate Past President the following year.

The 33-year-old national association is affiliated with the prestigious National Center for State Courts and exists to help chief judges solve the problems they encounter, and by so doing enhance the country’s intermediate appellate court system.

“The primary purpose of the council is consultation and education with a particular focus on the responsibilities of chief judges,” Judge Murphy explains. 

Though it may seem counterintuitive, it is no problem for the Council that its officers may no longer be in the chief judge position. “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 busy national organization.

Chief Judge 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, and he is unstinting in his praise for the other COA?judges.

In fact, Murphy himself started out his career as a law clerk to a COA judge in Detroit.

Though he is originally from Champaign, Ill., Judge Murphy went to Aquinas College in Grand Rapids before transferring to Michigan State University, from which he graduated in 1967. He then went on to Wayne State University Law School for his J.D., serving on the Wayne Law Review and the Wayne Student Board of Directors, graduating cum laude.

After his clerkship, Judge Murphy moved back to Grand Rapids and worked for Rhoades McKee briefly. He then started his own firm with two friends, Murphy, Burns and McInerney. At that time, he was president of what is now the Michigan Association for Justice.

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 terms in 1988, 1994, 2000, 2006, and 2012. Along the way he also made an unsuccessful 1996 run for the Michigan Supreme Court.

Judge Murphy had a “rehearsal” for his later Chief Judge position when he was elected (by the other COA judges according to the procedure in place at the time) as Chief Judge Pro Tem from 1992 to 1996. 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 Jan. 2012 to Dec. 2013. They then asked him 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 about 180 people, including a monthly meeting with his administrative team consisting of managers of finance, research, security and technology, and the chief clerk, currently Jerome W. Zimmer, Jr.

As Chief Judge Murphy explains, COA judges are elected on the basis of four districts, seven from each. The physical courts are placed around the state — one in Detroit at Cadillac Place, one in Troy, one in Lansing, and the one in Grand Rapids in the State of Michigan Building on Ottawa where Judge Murphy’s office is located — and each judge sits in all of the locations over time, forming assorted three-judge panels. By design, the geographic origin of the judges bears no relation to where the case on appeal took place.

Chief Judge Murphy must also ensure timely disposition of an ever-increasing caseload; handle the administrative motion docket; and, in particular, serve as 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,” Judge Murphy says. “And there is also keeping the morale of our staff up during this process.”

It should come as a surprise to no one that reductions in the amount of available money pose the chief judge’s most daunting challenge.

Chief Judge Murphy explains that the legislature previously en-

acted a law that would reduce the number of COA judges, but he wonders if that will be changed since the vote to move the Court of Claims to the COA (see Grand Rapids Legal News 12/6/13).

“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 Chief Judge Murphy originally became involved.

He observes, “Every state is different – but some of the problems are common to all of us. 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 Judge Murphy became chief judge, he asked the National Center for State Courts, which he called “the gold standard for evaluating court operations,” to come in and 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?”

However, the Center’s report was glowing, including such quotes 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.” 

Chief Judge Murphy believes that is one reason he was called upon at the time to participate more 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 www.

ccjsca.org.

Chief Judge Murphy expects that the time involved will ramp up until his term as president of the Council, but he is already quite active. For example, he is currently serving on a national work group which will come out with a report this month on time standards for intermediate courts and courts of last resort.  “We’ll put out some standards that courts will strive to achieve, and hopefully that will benefit courts throughout the country,” he says. 

Judge Murphy can look forward to spending time with his full and happy family once retirement comes. He met his wife, the former Paula Kralovec, when at Aquinas College. They have four daughters and, currently, seven grandchildren.

Over the years, the judge has been involved with such community efforts as Feeding America of West Michigan and Catholic Social Services, as well as serving on the board of trustees of Aquinas College.

 

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