Murphy was a public servant of highest order

prev
next

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

It’s only fitting that a “Hall of Justice” is named in his honor.

After all, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy was recognized in the legal world as a man far ahead of his time, a jurist who was color blind during an era when racism scarred the national landscape.

Murphy, who grew up in Michigan’s “Thumb,” earned his law degree from the University of Michigan in 1914, beginning a career in private practice at his father’s firm in Harbor Beach. From there, he opened his own firm in Detroit before serving as a captain in the U.S. Army during World War I.

His military service reportedly had a profound effect on Murphy, who was one of four children. It led to his decision to work as the chief trial attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit, which served as a stepping-stone to his election to the Detroit Recorder’s Court in 1923.

“Two years after his election, he was the only judge willing to risk getting involved in the case of Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black who had moved into a white Detroit neighborhood,” wrote reporter Melanie Brown in the 1995 Detroit Legal News profile of Murphy that was published in a “Legal Legends” booklet commemorating the 100th anniversary of the newspaper. “Dr. Sweet and 11 of his friends were charged with murder after someone fired into a mob of 500 in front of the house and killed a man.”

The case attracted national attention and brought the likes of attorney Clarence Darrow to “bolster the team of NAACP defenders,” according to Brown. Following two trials, an all-white jury found Sweet not guilty, accepting Darrow’s arguments that racism in Detroit and the lack of police protection resulted in a case of justifiable homicide.

“I want the defendants to know that true justice does not recognize color,” Murphy wrote at the time.

Two decades later, following his appointment by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the nation’s highest court, Murphy would show his true judicial colors again when he dissented from a decision to place American citizens of Japanese ancestry into internment camps during World War II.

“This exclusion of all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, from the Pacific Coast on the plea of military necessity in the absence of martial law ought not to be approved,” Murphy wrote. “Such exclusion goes over the very brink of constitutional power and falls into the ugly abyss of racism.

“Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatsoever in our democratic way of life,” he added. “It is unattractive in any setting, but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States.”

The passage of time, of course, would prove Murphy right, as nearly a half-century later Congress would acknowledge the infringement of civil rights, voting to offer belated compensation to those forced into incarceration during the war years.

It’s a message that may well echo through the presidential campaign today, which is fraught with proposals to “build walls” instead of “bridging gaps” toward understanding.

Murphy, as one of the most revered public servants of his time, was all about “doing the right thing,” maintaining a moral compass that was particularly evident during his time as mayor of Detroit in the depths of the Great Depression. Despite criticism, Murphy opened buildings for the homeless and soup kitchens for the hungry.

“No one in this great city of plenty must be allowed to go hungry, or cold, or unhoused or unclothed,” Murphy vowed.

A man of principle, Murphy was encouraged to run for governor in 1936, an election he won on the Democratic ticket. Among his first tests in office was to somehow defuse the 1937 sit-down strike staged by the United Auto Workers against General Motors in Flint.

It was a watershed moment in the U.S. labor movement and Murphy was committed to a peaceful resolution of the high-stakes dispute between auto workers and manufacturing giant GM. While he activated the National Guard, Murphy sought an alternative to force an end to the stalemate, calling representatives of both the UAW and GM to Lansing for face-to-face talks.

The move helped foster a spirit of understanding that would lay the groundwork for an end to the 44-day dispute, in effect brokering a peace that served as a bargaining model for years to come.

But Murphy’s value as a public servant was far from over. In 1939, Murphy was appointed by President Roosevelt as U.S. Attorney General, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. A year later, he would be elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he would continue his work as a staunch defender of civil rights and civil liberties until his death of a heart attack in 1949.

Wrote Murphy in a 1940 decision: “Civil liberty is simply . . . the idea of human dignity translated into actuality . . . as we safeguard civil liberty, we enrich human dignity. Measurably as we make real to every member of our democracy the spirit of the Bill of Rights, we demonstrate that we are qualified to be the trustees of civilization.”
 

Comments

  1. No comments
Sign in to post a comment »