Frank Murphy

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Frank Murphy
Justice Frank Murphy.jpg
Former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
From: January 18, 1940 – July 19, 1949
Nominator Franklin Roosevelt
Predecessor Pierce Butler
Successor Tom Clark
56th Attorney General of the United States
From: January 2, 1939 – January 18, 1940
President Franklin Roosevelt
Predecessor Homer S. Cummings
Successor Robert H. Jackson
35th Governor of Michigan
From: January 1, 1937 – January 1, 1939
Lieutenant Leo J. Nowicki
Predecessor Frank Fitzgerald
Successor Frank Fitzgerald
59th Mayor of Detroit
From: September 23, 1930 – May 10, 1933
Predecessor Charles Bowles
Successor Frank Couzens
Party Democrat
Religion Roman Catholic
Military Service
Service/branch United States Army
Rank Captain
Battles/wars World War I
World War II

William Francis (Frank) Murphy (April 13, 1890 – July 19, 1949) was a jurist and politician. Most notably, he was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, the 56th United States Attorney General , the 35th Governor of Michigan and the 59th Mayor of Detroit, Michigan. He was also the Governor-General of the Philippines, taught at the University of Detroit Mercy for five years and served as a captain in occupied Germany during World War I.[1]

During his tenure as attorney general, he enacted the first civil rights law in the Justice Department.[2]

As a Politician

Mayor of Detroit

Murphy became Mayor of Detroit during the first years of the Great Depression.[1][3] He combatted this reality by convincing industrialists to turn over their factories to be converted to boardinghouses for the homeless, and allowed delinquent property owners to pay their taxes over a seven-year period.[1] He also notably set up apple vendors - where the elderly or handicapped bought apples for 2 cents, and then resold them for a nickel - at the program's peak, 650 Detroiters were supporting their families by selling apples.[1]

Murphy organized meetings of mayors from across the nation - this would lead to the establishment of the U.S. Conference of Mayors - he would be their first president;[3][4] this group convinced Congress to provide direct federal aid to the cities.[1]

Governor-General of the Philippines

As a reward for campaigning for Franklin Roosevelt, Murphy was appointed to be Governor-General of the Philippines. There he attempted to guide the Philippines’ transition from a territory to a commonwealth.[1][5] He enacted minimum wage laws and supported women's suffrage.[5] Murphy was a popular leader - in 1935 he became the first United States High Commissioner of the Philippines.[6]

Governor of Michigan

Murphy returned from the Philippines to run against incumbent Frank Fitzgerald for the Governorship of Michigan - he won by a narrow margin. When Murphy took office, more than 100,000 General Motors workers were in the third day of a sit-down strike in Flint.[3] On January 11, 1937, policed stormed the protestors, leading to a brawl that ended with 27 injured.[1] Murphy called in the National Guard to protect the protestors, ignored a court order to remove the strikers and served as a mediator between the United Auto Workers and GM; on February 11 he announced an agreement had been made.[1]

Murphy would later do away with the spoils system and install a civil service system.[1] He lost his re-election bid to the same man he had defeated - Frank Fitzgerald.

Career in law

U.S. Attorney Eastern District of Michigan

Murphy served as a United States attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan from 1919-1922. He won all but one of the cases he prosecuted.[1]

Recorder's Court Judge

From 1923 to 1940, Murphy served as a Recorder's Court Judge. He presided over the famous Sweet murder trials - Dr. Ossian Sweet, an African-American, had been charged with the murder of a white man who was shot outside of his home. (Sweet was acquitted after a second trial.) Gary Maveal of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law noted that "Murphy’s fairness to the prosecution and defense was remarkable; his fairness to the defendant was unique for the times."[3]

Murphy changed the bail system so that the poor could more easily make bond and established an independent traffic court.

Attorney General

President Franklin Roosevelt nominated Murphy to serve as the United States Attorney General in 1939; there Murphy established a Civil Liberties Section in the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice.[3] He cracked down on liberal corrupt political machines in Kansas City and Philadelphia.[1]

Tenure on the Supreme Court

President Roosevelt again called Murphy to service - this time to serve on the Supreme Court, possibly to remove the chance of Murphy challenging him in a political race.[1]

“The law knows no finer hour than when it cuts through formal concepts and transitory emotions to protect unpopular citizens against discrimination and persecution.”
— Frank Murphy, Falbo v. United States dissent

As a jurist, he was a strong advocate of civil rights and distrustful of government power. This view led to perhaps his best known opinion - a dissent in the case Korematsu v. United States, which controversially held as constitutional the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Murphy referred to the ruling as the "legalization of racism", saying, "Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life ... All residents of this nation are kin in some way by blood or culture to a foreign land. Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of the new and distinct civilization of the United States. They must accordingly be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment and as entitled to all the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution."[7] Murphy also used the phrase "the ugly abyss of racism" - the first time the word "racism" was used in a Supreme Court opinion.[1]

Murphy consistently voted in upholding First Amendment claims. He voted with the majority to end compulsory flag saluting in schools in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette and he wrote the majority opinion protecting labor union picketing in Thornhill v. Alabama.[5]

In 1949 Murphy dissented in Wolf v. Colorado - where the majority ruled that the Fourth Amendment was not applicable to the states - in that evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment can be used in state trials. Murphy wrote that the opinion allowed "lawlessness by officers of the law".[5] In 1961, the Court would adopt Murphy's view and overturn Wolf in Mapp v. Ohio, establishing the exclusionary rule for states.[5]

During Court recesses, Murphy's desire to be part of the war effort led him to serve as an infantry officer in Fort Benning, Georgia.[2]


Murphy's health rapidly declined in his 50s - unable to sleep well and pain-ridden, he became addicted to Demerol and Seconal. When doctors ceased writing prescriptions for him, he purchased the drugs illegally through middlemen. In his last year on the Court he was frequently absent and frail; he ignored calls to step down. On July 19, 1949, Murphy died of a coronary thrombosis.[1]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 Richard Bak. (Frank) Murphy's Law (English). Hour Detroit.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Frank Murphy (English). Oyez.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Gary Maveal. Michigan Lawyers in History--Justice Frank Murphy, Michigan’s Leading Citizen (English). Michigan Bar.
  4. Past Presidents (English). The United States Conference of Mayors.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Francis William Murphy - Court, Michigan, Justice, Civil, Supreme, and Rights (English). law.jrank.
  6. William Francis "Frank" Murphy (1890-1949) (English). The United States Government.
  7. Murphy, Frank (12-18-1944). TOYOSABURO KOREMATSU v. UNITED STATES. (English). Retrieved on 02-23-2011.

External links