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Murphy, Frank

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Significance: Murphy was the most consistent voice for basic fairness and tolerance on the socially conscious New Deal-era Supreme Court. He voted continually with the Court majority when it expanded civil liberties and wrote ringing dissents when it denied a claimed right.


Murphy earned undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Michigan. After serving in Europe during World War I (1917-1918), he served as an assistant U.S. attorney and then as a judge in Detroit's principal criminal court. In 1930 pro-labor Democrat Murphy was elected mayor of Detroit. In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him governor general of the Philippines, where he served successfully until he returned to Michigan to run for state governor in 1936. After he was elected, Murphy's refusal to use force to end sit-in strikes cost him reelection in 1938, whereupon Roosevelt appointed him U.S. attorney general. His one-year stint as attorney general long influenced future litigation before the Supreme Court because he created the Justice Department's first civil rights unit, which aggressively protected the civil liberties of racial, political, and religious minorities. Upon the death of Justice Pierce Butler, a Roman Catholic Democrat from Minnesota, Roosevelt appointed Murphy, also a Catholic, to the vacant seat. After a year on the Court, Murphy joined with Justices Hugo L. Black, William O. Douglas, and later Wiley B. Rutledge, Jr., to form the Court's liberal core throughout the 1940's. Murphy decided cases independently, but he was not a great legal technician; when writing opinions, he relied extensively on his clerks. Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone usually assigned him cases that provided limited opportunity for memorable opinions. Murphy described the court as a “great pulpit,” and from it he supported society's underdogs. His moralizing obiter dicta (incidental remarks) gave rise to the phrase “justice tempered with Murphy.” A devout Catholic, Murphy had faith that manifested itself in his compulsion to pursue justice. On the socially liberal New Deal-era Court, his was the most consistent voice for basic fairness and tolerance. He supported the religious rights of the anti-Catholic Jehovah's Witnesses, defending their claims to conscientious objector status and freedom to proselytize door-to-door. In more than nine years on the Court, Murphy wrote 131 opinions for the Court majority or concurring with it and 68 dissents; his most outstanding opinions advocated protection for civil liberties. His first opinion, Thornhill v. Alabama (1940), extended constitutional protection for speech to peaceful picketing. In Korematsu v. United States (1944), he dissented from “this legalization of racism” (referring to the relocation of Japanese Americans). His dissent in In re Yamashita (1946) criticized the lack of due process in a Japanese general's war crime conviction. Writing the opinion for the Court in United States v. United Mine Workers (1947), he found no legal basis for a government injunction barring a coal miners’ strike. His dissent in Wolf v. Colorado (1949) castigated the Court for applying Fourth Amendment search and seizure requirements to the states but not requiring the adoption of the exclusionary rule. Murphy's strengths as a justice were his independence, integrity, and his uncompromising advocacy for the protection of broad civil liberties