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The Honorable Frank William Murphy
Class of: 1914

Source: Portrait from the Supreme Court Historical Society website


Frank Murphy (13 Apr. 1890-19 July 1949), politician and Supreme Court justice, was baptized William Francis Murphy in what is now Harbor Beach, Michigan, the son of John F. Murphy, a Canadian-born attorney, and Mary Brennan. He was deeply attached to his mother, who died in 1924, and his chief biographer believes that this attachment probably accounted for his not marrying. Educated in the public schools, Murphy received an LL.B. from the University of Michigan in 1914. After graduation he joined a Detroit law firm that was counsel to the city's employer association. He also taught in a night school for immigrants, which, he later wrote, gave him an insight into the problems of "the submerged majority," and beginning law classes at the University of Detroit, his one direct connection with American Catholic education. Soon after the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, Murphy attended a Reserve Officers Training Camp, was commissioned a first lieutenant, served with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France without seeing combat, did occupation duty in Germany, and under the army's postarmistice educational program, studied law briefly at Lincoln's Inn, London, and Trinity College, Dublin. He sailed for home in July 1919 and was discharged as a captain the next month. While in France in August 1918 he had received but declined a Democratic nomination for Congress, and before he returned to the United States, he was named first assistant U.S. attorney for Michigan's Eastern District.
Murphy was an exceedingly able prosecutor who, in two and a half years as a federal attorney, apparently won all but one of the cases he prosecuted, and that one resulted in a hung jury. Although by 1927 he was highly critical of the government's methods during the first "red scare" of 1919-1920, at the time he not only participated in the prosecution of radicals but was a supporter of A. Mitchell Palmer's failed presidential candidacy. Murphy accepted the Democratic nomination for Congress in 1920 from Michigan's First District and was badly defeated. He resigned as a federal prosecutor early in 1922 and formed a successful and financially rewarding law partnership. He also resumed teaching law at both the University of Detroit and at the nighttime Detroit College of Law.
In 1923 Murphy won a seat on Detroit's "nonpartisan" Recorder's Court and was reelected in 1929. He soon achieved local popularity and national standing as a progressive, innovative judge noted for a friendly attitude toward labor. His most famous cases were the two murder trials of Dr. Ossian Sweet and ten other persons. Sweet was a black physician who, having bought a home in a white neighborhood, defended it from a white mob with the help of some friends. One white man was shot to death and another wounded. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People participated in the successful defense and brought in Clarence Darrow as lead attorney. Murphy's unprejudiced handling of the case drew favorable national comment and won him the support of Detroit's growing black community. Although it was not publicly known until 1975, Murphy received illegal retainers from the Chrysler Corporation while on the bench, in addition to insider tips on the market from one of its executives, although there is no evidence that these in any way influenced his decisions.
In 1930, as Detroit began to feel the brunt of the Great Depression, Murphy won election as mayor, gaining 31 percent of the vote in a five-man field; the incumbent mayor, who had lost a recall election, came in second. As had been true of his races for the Recorder's Court, Murphy ran best in black and ethnic wards, worst in those that had a high percentage of native whites of native white parentage. He was reelected in 1931 with 64 percent of the vote. An estimated 100,000 workers were unemployed in Detroit when Murphy first took office, and responses to the depression were the leitmotiv of his administration. He soon became the spokesperson for the nation's mayors in their struggle for federal relief funds and was a founding father and the first president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Although Detroit then elected its mayors in nonpartisan elections, Murphy was an early supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After Roosevelt was nominated for president, Murphy, an excellent speaker, campaigned for him throughout Michigan. He hankered after an appointment as U.S. attorney general or governor general of the Philippines, but these posts were slated to go to Thomas J. Walsh and Homer S. Cummings. Walsh's preinauguration death and Cummings's appointment as attorney general left the Philippines for Murphy. He served there from 1933 to 1936.
An unusual colonial proconsul, Murphy brought his liberal notions with him and tried to put them into practice. Thus he helped Filipino women achieve suffrage and oversaw reforms in the administration of justice. His greatest service to the Filipino people was in assisting their independence campaign. Unlike many American colonial administrators, he reported to Washington that the people of the islands were ready for self-government and helped Manuel Quezon and other Filipino leaders in the negotiations that produced the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act, which provided for a ten-year period as a commonwealth to be followed by independence. When the commonwealth period began in 1935, Murphy became the first high commissioner.
In 1936, with the continuation of the New Deal seemingly in jeopardy, Murphy returned to seek Michigan's governorship, partially in response to a direct request from Roosevelt. As it turned out, Murphy needed Roosevelt's coattails, since the president carried Michigan with 56.3 percent of the vote while Murphy won with only 51 percent.
When Murphy became governor on 1 January 1937, the General Motors sit-down strikes had already begun. True to his prolabor principles, he refused to allow Michigan's National Guard to be used to break the strike, although he did send in troops to maintain order after violence occurred in Flint. He played a crucial role in helping to mediate the GM sit-downs and similar disputes during the 1937 strike wave, a role that gained him both widespread praise as a champion of labor's right to strike and heavy criticism for failing to enforce court injunctions for strikers to evacuate the plants. After this dramatic beginning, the remainder of his two-year term was prosaic and similar to those of other New Deal governors who had to contend with legislatures less liberal and reform-minded than themselves. Although Murphy presided over a progressive and efficient administration highlighted by a liberal unemployment compensation law, an expanded old-age assistance law, and a whole host of other New Deal-type reforms, he failed to win reelection in 1938, losing to the Republican he had defeated in 1936 and garnering only 47 percent of the vote. His defeat opened the way for his federal career: his appointment as attorney general of the United States was announced on the day his successor took office.
Murphy's one-year tenure as attorney general was energetic and successful. In line with his liberal convictions, he established the first civil liberties unit within the department and asked Congress to create a system of federal public defenders, but his enthusiastic support of attempts to suppress espionage and seditious activity--what Leo Ribuffo has called the "brown scare"--seemed to some to threaten civil liberty. He was very much a "law and order" attorney general and significantly improved the administration of the Department of Justice. In common with his immediate predecessors and successors, however, he failed adequately to supervise the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director, J. Edgar Hoover, and assisted him in expanding his power over the gathering of counterintelligence.
Murphy's year in the department was followed by an appointment as associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. With his appointment, the fifth made by Roosevelt, the Court truly became "the Roosevelt Court." Murphy was the first of Roosevelt's appointees to have judicial experience and the only one of the nine men Roosevelt named to positions on the Court who had been a trial judge. Murphy's appointment to the Court, although greeted with great public approval, was felt to be inappropriate by many legal insiders, chief of whom was his vitriolic fellow justice, Felix Frankfurter, who may have coined the canard about "tempering justice with Murphy" and predicted, quite erroneously, that Murphy would swing to the conservative side after a few years on the bench. Some of the objections to Murphy, who was clearly not a legal scholar, came from distaste for his fervent and florid Catholicism. Harvard's Thomas Reed Powell sneered that Murphy would bring with him as colleagues "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost." A more reasoned later criticism by Archibald Cox held that Murphy's opinion in Thornhill v. Alabama (1940), which identified peaceful picketing with free speech, was "more concerned with speaking out against intolerance and oppression than with legal craftsmanship," although Cox argued that the benefits of Thornhill outweighed its disadvantages.
Murphy's performance as a justice was commendable. He carried his share of the Court's work load, and his decisions and dissents are particularly notable in the fields of civil liberties and labor legislation. Many of his finest opinions were eloquent and evoked both natural and constitutional law. While concurring in the Court's decision voiding a deportation order for labor leader Harry R. Bridges, he wrote in Bridges v. Wixon (1945):
The record in this case will stand forever as a monument to man's intolerance for man. Seldom if ever in the history of the nation has there been such a concentrated and relentless crusade to deport an individual because he dared to exercise the freedom that belongs to him as a human being and that is guaranteed to him by the Constitution.
He went on to argue that the Immigration Act of 1918 was invalid, because it was based on guilt by association, a position that, had the rest of his brethren adopted it, would have made many of the prosecutions of the second "red scare" at least more difficult.
What many consider Murphy's finest hour as a civil libertarian came in the now infamous Japanese-American cases of 1943-1944, which sanctioned the mass roundup of native-born American citizens of Japanese ancestry and their incarceration in concentration camps. Murphy had originally written a dissent in the first of the cases, Hirabayashi v. United States (1943), which involved a curfew rather than incarceration. Collegial pressure and wartime patriotism caused him to modify it slightly into a concurrence, warning that what the Court justified bore "a melancholy resemblance to the treatment accorded to members of the Jewish race in Germany" and "goes to the very brink of constitutional power." (The original draft had said "over the brink.") The next year Murphy dissented, with two others, in Korematsu v. United States (1944), which did entail complete loss of liberty, and insisted that the majority decision was a "legalization of racism." Murphy also tried to protect the rights of conscientious objectors, religious dissidents, and American Indians and even wished to apply constitutional standards to the proceedings in the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. He was also concerned with the rights of defendants in ordinary criminal trials, and some of his dissents in such cases prefigure the criminal law decisions of the Earl Warren Court (1953-1968). Had he lived to serve on that Court, Murphy would no doubt have been comfortable with most of its innovations.
That was not to be. Murphy began to experience heart disease in 1943 and from 1946 on was hospitalized periodically with a number of illnesses. He died of a coronary thrombosis in Detroit.

--From the American National Biography
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