By Claudia Levy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 1, 2000; Page B07
Robert C. Murphy, 74, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals and administrator of the state judicial system during 25 years of major court reform, died of a neuromuscular disease Oct. 31 at his home in Timonium, Md.
The jurisdiction of the appeals court, the state's highest tribunal, includes death penalty cases, legislative redistricting and judicial system matters. Judge Murphy often wrote on behalf of the majority of the seven-member appeals panel and took on its most controversial cases, about 550 in all.
He held that the state's school finance system was constitutional, ruled in the issue of rent control on the Baltimore ballot and ordered that a referendum could not be held over financing of the Camden Yards baseball stadium.
He upheld a state ban on smoking in the workplace and decided sticky matters of legislative reapportionment after the 1980 and 1990 censuses.
He imposed exacting standards on courts in death penalty cases after national reform of statutes in the 1970s and 1980s. Those standards effectively halted capital punishment in Maryland until the early 1990s.
Judge Murphy's widest-ranging decision, in State v. Hicks, strictly upheld the right of a defendant to trial within 180 days. Failure to abide by that ruling in some cases had led to dismissal of charges in the crowded Baltimore and Prince George's County court systems.
Judge Murphy remained adamant that the deadlines be met, saying there had to be good cause to delay a trial longer than half a year.
In another case, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed his decision that a police check of telephone records did not constitute a search requiring a warrant.
Some of the changes in the system of justice instituted under Judge Murphy were considered pioneering and were copied elsewhere.
Among them were broader reviews of judges' disability and selection and creation of a commission to review grievances against lawyers.
He also created a commission to study sex bias in the judiciary system. It helped lead to changes in how the judicial culture treated female litigants and lawyers.
In the late 1980s, he was president of the national Conference of Chief Justices.
Judge Murphy retired from the court in 1996 at the mandatory age of 70. He had served in the post since 1972, when he was appointed by Gov. Marvin Mandel at the relatively young age of 45.
From the 1950s until 1967, he was a state law enforcement officer, serving as the state's assistant and deputy attorneys general and then attorney general. Until his court appointment, he was chairman of the Commission on Judicial Disabilities and other legal bodies.
As one of the state's top lawyers, he oversaw civil rights and voting rights cases and worked on reform of state government under Govs. J. Millard Tawes, Spiro T. Agnew and Mandel. He was also counsel to the University of Maryland, where he had received his undergraduate and law degrees.
Friends said that as chief justice and chief administrator of the state court system, Judge Murphy worked at what amounted to two full-time jobs. He slept on a cot in his office two nights a week to handle the workload and was well known for returning all phone calls, no matter who had placed them.
Judge Murphy was a native of Baltimore and served in the Navy during World War II. He began his career as clerk to Judge William P. Cole Jr. in the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals.
Judge Murphy was a member of the governing board of the Council of State Governments, chairman of the board of the National Center for State Courts and chairman of the board of trustees of the University of Maryland's Alumni Association International.
He held honorary doctorates from the University of Maryland and the University of Baltimore.
The Court of Appeals building in Annapolis was named in his honor after he retired.
Survivors include his wife of 46 years, Helen Murphy of Timonium; three children with careers in the law, Thomas M. Murphy of Ellicott City, Associate Caroline County Circuit Court Judge Karen A. Murphy Jensen and Kathy M. Blue of Towson, Md.; and six grandchildren.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company