Michigan Lawyers in History—Justice Frank Murphy, Michigan’s Leading Citizen

by Gary Maveal

Frank Murphy fulfilled a career of public service unequaled by any Michigan citizen. In a lifetime of just 59 years, he served as a Recorder’s Court Judge, Mayor of Detroit, Governor-General and High Commissioner of the Philippines, Governor of Michigan, Attorney General of the United States, and Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Murphy was born in Harbor Beach in 1890 to Irish parents who raised him as a devout Catholic. He attended the University of Michigan, earning his law degree in 1914. As a young lawyer practicing in Detroit, he taught law in the evenings at the University of Detroit and also taught English to immigrants at MacMillan School in Delray. He served as an infantry captain in France during World War I and returned to be appointed Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney in Detroit.

As a prosecutor, he won convictions in fraud cases involving defense procurement fraud. He also prosecuted the condemnation proceedings to allow the widening of the Rouge River and the building of Ford’s mammoth Rouge plant.

Recorder’s Court Judge

Murphy served as a judge of the Recorder’s Court during the Prohibition era, 1924-30. His best-known trials were the two murder trials of Dr. Ossian Sweet, an African-American charged with the murder of a white man. Sweet had moved his family to a white neighborhood in Detroit; the victim had been shot in a mob of whites assembled outside the Sweet home. Clarence Darrow led the defense of Dr. Sweet who, after the first trial ended in a hung jury, was acquitted after his second trial. By all accounts, Judge Murphy’s fairness to the prosecution and defense was remarkable; his fairness to the defendant was unique for the times.

Judge Murphy’s overall record of service on the Recorder’s Court also won him high praise. He faced the city’s growing culture of cars by working to create an independent Traffic Court. With a view of probation as a form of social service, he established a professional, nonpolitical probation department as an arm of the court. In the same way, he worked to eliminate the disparity between rich and poor in winning pretrial release on bail and helped create a bond bureau as part of the court’s operations.

A relatively lenient judge, Murphy preferred to give offenders the benefit of the doubt when assessing their prospects of rehabilitation. One observer praised Judge Murphy’s work on the Recorder’s bench as ‘‘a sacred ministry.’’ It is fitting that the new Recorder’s Court building was named the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in 1969.

Mayor of Detroit

Murphy served as mayor for the city of Detroit during the first years of the Depression, from 1930-33. He presided over an epidemic of urban unemployment, a crisis in which 100,000 people were unemployed in the summer of 1931. He named an unemployment committee of private citizens from businesses, churches, and labor and social service organizations to identify all residents who were unemployed and not receiving welfare benefits. The Mayor’s Unemployment Committee raised monies for its relief effort and worked to distribute food and clothing to the needy, and a Legal Aid Subcommittee volunteered to assist with legal problems of needy clients.

Mayor Murphy struggled to provide housing to thousands of homeless people through emergency shelters and kitchens. His Department of Public Works ran work-relief programs in which thousands of welfare recipients worked for their benefits.

Murphy also became a national spokesman for the plight of the industrialized cities at the hands of the Depression. He spoke at Democratic and Progressive conferences and conventions. He organized and led other urban mayors in lobbying for state and federal support of the cities and enlisted others to do so, efforts which laid the way for the founding of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Prof. Sidney Fine, an Andrew Dickson White professor of history at the University of Michigan and author of a three-volume biography of Murphy, said he was ‘‘a New Dealer before there was a New Deal.’’ Murphy was a close political ally of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and helped him carry Michigan in the presidential election in 1932. After Murphy’s second mayoral term, Roosevelt appointed him Governor-General (and later High Commissioner) of the Philippines, posts he held from 1933-36.

Governor of Michigan

Murphy won election as Michigan’s governor in 1936, at a time of extreme turmoil in labor relations. The Wagner Act, passed in 1935 to confer collective bargaining rights, had been successfully resisted by employers in the federal courts. John Lewis was leading the fledgling Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) to organize industrial workers nationally.

When Governor Murphy took office on January 1, 1937, more than 100,000 GM workers were in the third day of a sit-down strike in Flint. Murphy recognized the illegality of the strike, but resisted calls for the use of force to dispel the workers. His determination in the matter was driven by his view that the workers’ individual rights were every bit as important as corporate property rights. He explained his sympathies to a Senate Committee this way:

[These] hard-working citizens had determined that their right to bargain collectively should be recognized...They were thousands of honest citizens...who believe that they were only defending their own rights against...the lawless refusal of their employers to recognize their unions. (H. Norris, Mr. Justice Murphy and the Bill of Rights, p 508).

Governor Murphy succeeded in forcing the parties to negotiate their differences and end the sit-down strike. Despite a solid record of governmental reforms—in budgetary matters and administrative procedures—his humanitarian stand on the strike cost him re-election to a second term, as the public grew weary of labor unrest and sit-down strikes.

Attorney General of the United States

In 1939, President Roosevelt nominated Governor Murphy to serve as U.S. Attorney General. In line with his view of government’s role as protection of individual liberty, Murphy established a Civil Liberties Section in the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice. The section was designed to centralize enforcement responsibility for the Bill of Rights and civil rights statutes.

As Attorney General, Murphy produced an eloquent speech titled In Defense of Democracy, on the responsibilities of citizenship. In it, he made clear his view of our heritage of equal rights under the law:

This is a time to strengthen our civil liberties—to freshen our understanding of them and to redouble our efforts to extend them in full to every member of our democracy...from the poorest laborer to the wealthiest man in the land. That is the American way. It is—this idea that liberty must be for all—the finest thing that America has given to civilization. (H. Norris, Mr. Justice Murphy and the Bill of Rights, p 67).

U.S. Supreme Court Justice

Justice Murphy’s service on the Supreme Court for nine years, from 1940-49, marked his place as a champion of equal justice.

He authored 199 opinions: 131 for the majority and 68 in dissent. Among his notable opinions for the Court were Thornhill v Alabama, 310 US 88 (1940), which held that peaceful picketing was a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment, and Anderson v Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., 328 US 680 (1946), which held that time spent by employees in walking to work stations after punching a time clock constituted working time within the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. (Congress responded with the Portal-to-Portal Act to largely relieve employers of the obligation to pay for employee’s time spent in nonproductive activities).

Justice Murphy’s best opinions were his emotional dissents, including Wolf v Colorado, 338 US 25 (1949) and Korematsu v United States, 323 US 214 (1944). In Korematsu, the Court’s majority upheld the evacuation and subsequent internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Murphy wrote that the exclusion order exceeded constitutional power and fell into the ‘‘ugly abyss of racism.’’ He concluded:

Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. 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. 323 US at 233.

The powerful dissent was a repudiation of President Roosevelt’s policy and demonstrated Murphy’s courage to rule according to his judicial conscience. The opinion is commemorated at the Frank Murphy Museum in Harbor Beach as one of the State Bar’s ‘‘Michigan Legal Milestones.’’

Murphy’s many contributions—to Detroit, to Michigan, and to the country—can only be summarized in this essay, yet even this brief recounting of his career reveals his enduring commitment to the pursuit of social justice and to the primacy of each citizen’s individual liberty.

Gary Maveal is an associate professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and the director of its Urban Law Clinic. As a law student at the University of Detroit, he earned membership in the Justice Frank Murphy Honor Society. He is a member of the Bar Journal Advisory Board.