Robert Murphy dies at 74, appeals court chief judge
Practical centrist revamped Md. courts

By Frederick Rasmussen
Sun Staff
Originally published Nov 1 2000

Robert Charles Murphy, the retired chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals who presided over the transformation of the state judiciary while earning a reputation as a pragmatic jurist and tough administrator, died early yesterday of neuromuscular disease at his Timonium residence. He was 74.

Before retiring in 1996 after 25 years as chief of Maryland's highest court, Judge Murphy oversaw the state's 252 judges, introduced such modern methods as computer tracking of cases, and created a system that temporarily recalled retired judges to the bench.

One of his most historic accomplishments was creation of the state's District Court system, replacing the state's old patchwork of local courts once overseen by politically minded, and at times corrupt, judges, magistrates and justices of the peace.

He was 45 years old when Gov. Marvin Mandel appointed him to head the Court of Appeals, becoming the youngest chief judge in Maryland's history.

"He did a magnificent job in elevating the status of the court outside of the state of Maryland," Mandel said yesterday. "It is now considered one of the foremost appellate courts in the country.

"I appointed him so he would have longevity in office. Before that, the rule was that appointments were done on the basis of seniority," Governor Mandel said. "His accomplishments and opinions were respected throughout the nation, and it's a terrible loss that he has passed on."

Judge Murphy once referred to himself as a "a mainstream moderate." As chief judge, he wrote hundreds of opinions and established a record as a solid centrist more comfortable with interpreting the law than making it.

"He was politically astute, knew politicians and understood the process," said former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, now the state comptroller. "He was always straight, honest and a very fine man."

Robert Charles Murphy was born the son of Leo J. Murphy, a Boston-born Baltimore & Ohio Railroad detective, and Eva LaFontaine Murphy, an industrial spy and professional whistler, family members said.

Reared in the Pimlico section of the city, he graduated from Forest Park High School, where he picked up such skills as shorthand and typing, which he would use later in life as a lawyer and judge.

His decision to pursue law came one summer in his youth while he was working at Lake Roland selling fishing licenses and renting rowboats.

He'd arrive each day with a stack of books that he carried aboard the No. 24 streetcar, to read when business was slow. He was fascinated by the descriptive account of the murder trial of Clyde Griffith in Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy," and the theme that we are all prisoners of social and economic forces.

During World War II, he served in the Navy and was discharged in 1946. He earned his college and law degrees from the University of Maryland.

Before being admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1952, he worked as a law clerk in the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals in Washington. He later took a position with the Maryland attorney general's office, where he served for 10 years before being appointed attorney general in 1966.

Three months later, in 1967, Judge Murphy was named chief judge of the then-newly created Court of Special Appeals, the state's intermediate appeals court. In 1972, Governor Mandel appointed him to head the Court of Appeals.

Governor Mandel, Judge Murphy and his longtime friend, the late Judge Robert F. Sweeney, were the architects of the District Court.

Judge Sweeney was appointed and served as the first chief judge of the District Court system until retiring in 1996, a month before Judge Murphy. In one of his last official acts, Judge Murphy appointed Judge Sweeney's successor, Martha F. Rasin, as chief judge of the District Court.

Among his other accomplishments, Judge Murphy increased judicial pensions, encouraged judicial education, and instituted a statewide budgeting process and the annual "State of the Judiciary" message to the General Assembly.

To see his influence, one need only walk into any courthouse law library, where the decisions published by the Court of Special Appeals are bound in green volumes because, as an Irishman and as that court's first chief judge, Judge Murphy preferred the color.

He was honored four months before his retirement, when the building in Annapolis that houses Maryland's two appellate courts and the law library was renamed the Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal Building.

He left the court Oct. 9, 1996, the day he turned 70, the state Constitution's mandatory retirement age for judges - which he had unsuccessfully tried to raise to 75.

"He was not only a great judge but a great administrator. He successfully brought our judiciary from the dark ages into the modern era. He built a most creditable and respected judiciary," said Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, who succeeded him in 1996.

"He brought a vision, enthusiasm and intelligence to his work," Judge Bell said. "He was the right person at the right time. This really is the end of an era."

He said Judge Murphy was a "master at maintaining control" in his court, yet at the same time demonstrated a sense of humor and could empathize with an attorney arguing a case before the court for the first time.

"He was not a bully or intimidating in court. However, he did not suffer fools or hogwash gladly, and he didn't like people throwing sand in his eyes. He expected you to act properly," said Judge Robert L. Karwacki, who retired from the Court of Appeals in 1997.

"He had a huge impact and a strong agenda for judicial reform and worked tirelessly for it. His list of accomplishments just goes on and on," said William H. Adkins II, retired from the Court of Appeals and living in Williamstown, Mass.

Not all of Judge Murphy's reform efforts were successful.

He was frustrated in attempts to reform the circuit courts and prosecutors' offices throughout the state. He sought to have the state's 24 circuit courts merged into a single system financed by the state, which would also have eliminated elected court clerks.

He also tried to eliminate the system of elected state's attorneys in the state's 23 counties and Baltimore City, and proposed that they be replaced by a single prosecutor's office.

Judge Murphy's rulings often spilled into the political arena.

In 1987, he wrote the 6-1 opinion that cleared the way for construction of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a ruling that thrilled Governor Schaefer, but upset stadium opponents who wanted the project put to a statewide vote.

In 1983, he wrote the opinion saying the Constitution did not guarantee increased school funding for the state's poorer subdivisions, striking down a challenge from Baltimore and four other jurisdictions as to the fairness of the school financing formula.

"He had a tremendous capacity for work and getting things done," said Court of Appeals Judge John C. Eldridge. "He wrote dozens and dozens of significant opinions on a wide variety of judicial issues. He also had the ability to quickly get right to the heart and issues of a case."

He was also known for a willingness to back off hard and firm opinions and arrive at a consensus.

He was a communicant of Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Towson.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5200 N. Charles St.

Judge Murphy is survived by his wife of 46 years, the former Helen T. Klopatch; a son, Thomas M. Murphy of Ellicott City; two daughters, Kathy M. Blue of Towson and Karen A. Murphy Jensen of Denton; and six grandchildren.

Return to Robert Murphy's sources page