Michigan Irish Hall of Fame honors legacy of Hon. Frank Murphy: former Michigan governor, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Detroit mayor, U.S. Attorney General, and last Governor General of the Philippines

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By Cynthia Price
Legal News

The distinguished career of an Irish-American gentleman named Frank Murphy is one of the most impressive “forgotten” stories in Michigan history.

But if the people behind the Michigan Irish Hall of Fame have anything to say about it, Murphy’s legacy will be assured.

Murphy is the only person to have been both the Governor of Michigan and a justice of the United States Supreme Court. He was also the Mayor of Detroit, the U.S. Attorney General, and the last Governor General of the Philippines.

Moreover, some of Murphy’s accomplishments during the public service career that lasted until his death at the age of 59 in 1949, were amazing. He was a man ahead of his time with a strong moral character who stuck with his opinions even when they were unpopular.

The Irish Hall of Fame induction ceremony is held annually at the Michigan Irish Music Festival in Muskegon. Retired Muskegon 14th Circuit Court Judge Neil Mullally is a committed promoter of the hall of fame.

On Sept. 14, Lansing attorney James Neal, who nominated Justice Murphy, focused on three milestones in Murphy’s “remarkable” career.

Chronologically, Justice Murphy’s first challenge came after he won election as judge in the Detroit Court of Record (the criminal court) at 33 – the youngest jurist in a Michigan court of record. There, in 1925-26, he presided over the famous Ossian Sweet case.

A medical doctor, Ossian Sweet moved into a home in an all-white neighborhood of Detroit in the 1920s, but, fearing the trouble he’d observed when other African-Americans attempted to occupy, he brought armed friends with him. The anticipated mob of white people appeared, and when rocks were thrown at those in the house, those inside fired shots, which resulted in one death.

Charged with murder, Dr. Sweet and the seven other defendants claimed it was self-defense. The NAACP hired famed lawyer Clarence Darrow to defend Sweet, and the result was a hung jury. After a successful motion to try the eight defendants separately, and the acquittal of the first defendant, the prosecuting attorney dismissed the charges.

The trial was well-known at the time; interest has been revived on and off over the years, peaking when Kevin Boyle’s 2004 Arc of Justice: ASaga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age became a national bestseller. Boyle also created a drama, Dr. Sweet’s Tinderbox.

 Says Marcet Haldeman-Julius in Clarence Darrow's Two Greatest Trials, “...few cases of such importance have been tried more quietly... [The case] took its tone, the atmosphere of that courtroom, from the man who presided over it – Judge Murphy.”

Murphy next became Mayor of Detroit, during the Great Depression.  He convened and organized the first convention of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He was then appointed Governor General of the Philippines by Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, and when that position ended, the High Commissioner of the nation.

It was when he returned to Michigan and ran successfully for Governor that Murphy met his next challenge in the sit-down strike at General Motors Flint plant. Gov. Murphy called in the National Guard not to suppress the strike, but to protect the workers. He then successfully mediated an end to the strike.

This was demonstrably a boon to labor unions, with which Murphy had sympathy his whole career.

When Murphy was defeated for re-election to the governorship in 1938, Pres. Roosevelt appointed him first as the U.S. Attorney General, where he established the Civil Rights  Unit in the Criminal Division; and then to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It was as a SCOTUS justice that he made what is probably his most enduring  contribution to history.

Justice Murphy wrote a dissent in Korematsu v. United States, the 1944 case where the U.S. government prosecuted a young Japanese-American, Fred Korematsu, for being in the wrong area and refusing to be “relocated,” or interned, during World War II. That case has also received increased attention since 2010, when California (under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) declared Jan. 30  Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution.

As part of the minority of three in the case, Justice Murphy called the wartime internment of the Japanese-American citizens “legalization of racism,” and said it “falls into the ugly abyss of racism.” According to SCOTUS?scholars, that  and a few other concurrent Murphy opinions were the first times the word “racism” was used in a Supreme Court opinion.

Later, the government apologized for its internment policy. Due to prosecutorial failure to introduce Office of Naval Intelligence documents, Korematsu’s decision was also overturned. Murphy’s righteous opinion was vindicated.

At the induction, attorney James Neal, who listed his relationship to Justice Murphy as “Admirer” in the nomination package, commented, “In legal circles, this is simply called ‘Murphy’s Dissent.’”

Though the average Michiganian probably has not heard of Frank Murphy, it is not as if there are no indications of the respect due him. There is a hall of justice named for him in Detroit, though it is now slated for demolition, and the 1996 State Bar of Michigan Milestone honors Murphy’s Korematsu decision. There is also a Frank Murphy Memorial Museum in Harbor Beach, where he was born.

Lori Murawske, director of the museum, accepted the induction award, since Justice Murphy left no descendants. Murawske, Judge Mullally, and Neal, an attorney with the Lansing firm of Loomis, Ewert, Parsley, Davis and Gotting P.C., are working to be sure Murphy’s legacy stays alive.

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