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Frank Murphy
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

In office
January 18, 1940 – July 19, 1949[1]
Nominated by Franklin Roosevelt
Preceded by Pierce Butler
Succeeded by Tom Clark
56th United States Attorney General

In office
January 2, 1939 – January 18, 1940
President Franklin Roosevelt
Preceded by Homer Cummings
Succeeded by Robert Jackson
35th Governor of Michigan

In office
January 1, 1937 – January 1, 1939
Lieutenant Leo Nowicki
Preceded by Frank Fitzgerald
Succeeded by Frank Fitzgerald
1st High Commissioner to the Philippines

In office
November 15, 1935 – December 31, 1936
President Franklin Roosevelt
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Weldon Jones (Acting)
Governor General of the Philippine Islands

In office
July 15, 1933 – November 15, 1935
President Franklin Roosevelt
Preceded by Ted Roosevelt
Succeeded by Manuel Quezon (President)
55th Mayor of Detroit

In office
September 23, 1930 – May 10, 1933
Preceded by Charles Bowles
Succeeded by Frank Couzens
Personal details
Born William Francis Murphy
(1890-04-13)April 13, 1890
Harbor Beach, Michigan, U.S.
Died July 19, 1949(1949-07-19) (aged 59)
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Military service
Allegiance United States
Service/branch  United States Army
Rank US military captain's rank.gif Captain
Battles/wars World War I
World War II

William Francis "Frank" Murphy (April 13, 1890 – July 19, 1949) was a Democratic politician and jurist from Michigan. He was named to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1940 after a political career that included stints as Governor of Michigan and Mayor of Detroit. He also served as the last Governor General of the Philippine Islands and the first High Commissioner of the Philippines.

Born in Huron County, Michigan, Murphy graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1914. After serving in the United States Army during World War I, Murphy served as a federal attorney and trial judge. He served as Mayor of Detroit from 1930 to 1933 before accepting appointment as Governor-General of the Philippine Islands. He defeated incumbent Republican Governor Frank Fitzgerald in Michigan's 1936 gubernatorial election and served a single term as Governor of Michigan. Murphy lost re-election to Fitzgerald in 1938 and accepted appointment as the United States Attorney General the following year. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Murphy to the Supreme Court to fill a vacancy caused by the death of Pierce Butler. Murphy served on the Court from 1940 until his death in 1949, and was succeeded by Tom C. Clark. Murphy wrote the Court's majority opinion in SEC v. W. J. Howey Co., and wrote a dissenting opinion in Korematsu v. United States.

Early life[]

Murphy was born in Harbor Beach, Michigan, then known as Sand Beach,[2] in 1890. His Irish parents, John T. Murphy and Mary Brennan, raised him as a devout Catholic.[3] He followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a lawyer. He attended the University of Michigan Law School, and graduated with a BA in 1912 and LLB in 1914. He was a member of the Sigma Chi Fraternity and the senior society Michigamua.[4] Murphy was stricken with diphtheria in the winter of 1911 but was allowed to begin his course in the Law Department from which he received his LL.B. degree in 1914. He performed graduate work at Lincoln's Inn in London and Trinity College, Dublin, which was said to be formative for his judicial philosophy. He developed a need to decide cases based on his more holistic notions of justice, eschewing technical legal arguments. As one commentator quipped of his later Supreme Court service, he "tempered justice with Murphy."[5]

He taught law at the University of Detroit for five years.

He served in the U.S. Army during World War I, achieving the rank of captain with the occupation army in Germany before leaving the service in 1919.


1919–22: U.S. Attorney, Eastern District of Michigan[]

Murphy was appointed, and took the oath of office as, first assistant United States attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan on August 9, 1919.[6] He was one of three assistant attorneys in the office.

When Murphy began his career as a federal attorney the workload of the attorney's office was increasing at a rapid rate, mainly because of the number of prosecutions resulting from the enforcement of national prohibition. The government's excellent record in winning convictions in the Eastern District was partially due to Murphy's record of winning all but one of the cases he prosecuted. He practiced law privately to a limited extent while still a federal attorney, and resigned his position as a United States attorney on March 1, 1922.[7] He had several offers to join private practices, but decided to go it alone and formed a partnership with Edward G. Kemp in Detroit.[8]

1923–30: Recorder's Court[]

Murphy ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the United States Congress in 1920, when national and state Republicans swept Michigan, but used his legal reputation and growing political connections to win a seat on the Recorder's Court, Detroit's criminal court.[9] In 1923, he was elected judge of the Recorder's Court on a non-partisan ticket by one of the largest majorities ever cast for a judge in Detroit, took office on January 1, 1924, and served seven years during the Prohibition era.

While on Recorder's Court, he established a reputation as a trial judge. He was a presiding judge in the famous murder trials of Dr. Ossian Sweet and his brother, Henry Sweet, in 1925 and 1926. Clarence Darrow, then one of the most prominent trial lawyers in the country, was lead counsel for the defense.[10] After an initial mistrial of all of the black defendants, Henry Sweet—who admitted that he fired the weapon which killed a member of the mob surrounding Dr. Sweet's home and was retried separately—was acquitted by an all-white jury on grounds of the right of self-defense.[11] The prosecution then elected to not prosecute any of the remaining defendants. Murphy's rulings were material to the outcome of the case.[12]

1930–33: Mayor of Detroit[]

In 1930, Murphy ran as a Democrat and was elected Mayor of Detroit. He served from 1930 to 1933, during the first years of the Great Depression. He presided over an epidemic of urban unemployment, a crisis in which 100,000 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 funds for its relief effort and worked to distribute food and clothing to the needy, and a Legal Aid Subcommittee volunteered to assist with the legal problems of needy clients. In 1933, Murphy convened in Detroit and organized the first convention of the United States Conference of Mayors. They met and conferred with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Murphy was elected its first president.[13]

Murphy was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Roosevelt and the New Deal, helping Roosevelt to become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state of Michigan.

Melvin G. Holli rated Murphy an exemplary mayor and a highly effective leader.[14]

1933–35: Governor-General of the Philippine Islands[]

By 1933, after Murphy's second mayoral term, the reward of a big government job was waiting. Roosevelt appointed Murphy as Governor-General of the Philippine Islands.

He was sympathetic to the plight of ordinary Filipinos, especially for the land-hungry and oppressed tenant farmers, and emphasized the need for social justice.[15]

1935–36: High Commissioner to the Philippines[]

When his position as Governor-General was abolished in 1935, he stayed on as United States High Commissioner until 1936. That year, he was a delegate from the Philippine Islands to the Democratic National Convention.

High Commissioner to the Philippines was the title of the personal representative of the President of the United States to the Commonwealth of the Philippines during the period 1935–46. The office was created by the Tydings–McDuffie Act of 1934, which provided for a period of transition from direct American rule to the complete independence of the islands on July 4, 1946.[citation needed]

1937–39: Governor of Michigan[]

Murphy was elected the 35th Governor of Michigan on November 3, 1936, defeating Republican incumbent Frank Fitzgerald, and served one two-year term. During his two years in office, an unemployment compensation system was instituted and mental health programs were improved.

The United Automobile Workers engaged in an historic sit-down strike at General Motors' Flint plant. The Flint Sit-Down Strike was a turning point in national collective bargaining and labor policy. After 27 people were injured in a battle between the workers and the police, including 13 strikers with gunshot wounds, Murphy sent the National Guard to protect the workers, didn't follow a court order requesting him to expel the strikers, and refused to order the Guard's troops to suppress the strike.[16][17][18]

He successfully mediated an agreement and end to the confrontation, and G.M. recognized the U.A.W. as bargaining agent under the newly adopted National Labor Relations Act. This recognition had a significant effect on the growth of organized labor unions.[19] In the next year, the UAW saw its membership grow from 30,000 to 500,000 members. As later noted by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), this strike was "the strike heard round the world."[20]

In 1938 Murphy was defeated by his predecessor, Fitzgerald, who became the only governor of Michigan to precede, and then succeed, the same person.

1939–40: Attorney General of the United States[]

In 1939, Roosevelt appointed Murphy the 56th Attorney General of the United States. He established a Civil Liberties Unit in the Criminal Division of the United States Department of Justice, designed to centralize enforcement responsibility for the Bill of Rights and civil rights statutes.[21]

1940–49: Supreme Court[]

Frank Murphy, then U.S. attorney general, is pictured leaving his Washington, D.C. hotel for a Judiciary reception at the White House, January 4, 1940. He had been nominated as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court that day.

After a year as Attorney General, on January 4, 1940, Murphy was nominated by Roosevelt as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, filling the seat vacated by the death of Pierce Butler. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on January 16, and sworn in on January 18.[22] The timing of the appointment put Murphy on the cusp of the Charles Evans Hughes[23] and the Harlan Fiske Stone courts.[24] On the death of Chief Justice Stone, Murphy served in the court led by Frederick Moore Vinson, who was confirmed in 1946.[25]

Murphy took an expansive view of individual liberties, and the limitations on government he found in the Bill of Rights.[26]

He authored 199 opinions: 131 for the majority, 68 in dissent.[27] One of the important opinions authored by Justice Murphy was Securities and Exchange Commission v. W. J. Howey Co. (1946), in which the Court defined the term "investment contract" under the Securities Act of 1933, thus giving content to the most important concept of what makes something a security in American law.

Opinions differ about him and his jurisprudential philosophy. He has been acclaimed as a legal scholar and a champion of the common man,[27] but Justice Felix Frankfurter disparagingly nicknamed Murphy "the Saint", criticizing his decisions as being rooted more in passion than reason. It has been said he was "neither legal scholar nor craftsman", and he was criticized "for relying on heart over head, results over legal reasoning, clerks over hard work, and emotional solos over team play."[28]

Murphy's support of African Americans, aliens, criminals, dissenters, Jehovah's Witnesses, Native Americans, women, workers and other "outsiders" evoked a pun: "tempering justice with Murphy." As he wrote in Falbo v. United States (1944), "The law knows no finer hour than when it cuts through formal concepts and transitory emotions to protect unpopular citizens against discrimination and persecution." (p. 561)

According to Frankfurter, Murphy was part of the more liberal "axis" of justices on the Court along with Justices Rutledge, Douglas and Black; the group would for years oppose Frankfurter's "judicially restrained" conservative ideology.[29] Douglas, Murphy and then Rutledge were the first justices to agree with Hugo Black's notion that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated the Bill of Rights' protection in it; this view would later become law.[30]

Murphy is perhaps best known for his vehement dissent from the court's ruling in Korematsu v. United States (1944), which upheld the constitutionality of the government's internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. He sharply criticized the majority ruling as "legalization of racism."

This was the first time the word "racism" found its way into a Supreme Court opinion (Murphy had previously used the term twice in a concurring opinion in Steele v Louisville & Nashville Railway Co (1944)[31] issued that same day). He would use that word again in five separate opinions before the word "racism" disappeared from Murphy's and the High Court's other opinions for almost two decades, not reappearing until the landmark decision of Loving v. Virginia (1967),[32][33] which struck down as unconstitutional the Virginia anti-miscegenation statute. (See also Jim Crow laws.)

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy, former Attorney General, Feb. 1940

Although Murphy was serving on the Supreme Court during World War II, he still longed to be part of the war effort; and so during Court recesses he served at Fort Benning, Georgia as an infantry officer.[34]

On January 30, 1944, almost exactly one year before Allied liberation of the Auschwitz death camp on January 27, 1945, Justice Murphy unveiled the formation of the National Committee Against Nazi Persecution and Extermination of the Jews. Serving as committee chair, he declared that it was created to combat Nazi propaganda "breeding the germs of hatred against Jews." This announcement was made on the 11th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's appointment as Chancellor of Germany. The eleven committee members included U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace, 1940 Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie and Henry St. George Tucker, Presiding Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church.[35]

Thomas was among 12 nominated at the 1944 Democratic National Convention to serve as Roosevelt's running mate in the presidential election that year.[36] He acted as chairman of the National Committee against Nazi Persecution and Extermination of the Jews and of the Philippine War Relief Committee.[37] The first committee was established in early 1944 to promote rescue of European Jews, and to combat antisemitism in the United States.[38]

Death and memory[]

Murphy died aged 59 of coronary thrombosis during his sleep at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.[39] Over 10,000 people attended his funeral in Detroit. He was engaged to be married in August to Joan Cuddihy.[40]

His remains are interred at Our Lady of Lake Huron Cemetery in Harbor Beach, Michigan.[41][42] The Frank Murphy Hall of Justice was home to Detroit's Recorder's Court and now houses part of Michigan's Third Judicial Circuit Court.[43] There is a plaque in his honor on the first floor, which is recognized as a Michigan Legal Milestone.[44]

Outside the Hall of Justice is Carl Milles's statue "The Hand of God".[45] This rendition was cast in honor of Murphy and financed by the United Automobile Workers. It features a nude figure emerging from the left hand of God. Although commissioned in 1949 and completed by 1953, the work, partly because of the male nudity involved,[46] was kept in storage for a decade and a half.[47] The work was chosen in tribute to Murphy by Walter P. Reuther and Ira W. Jayne.[48] It was placed on a pedestal in 1970 with the help of sculptor Marshall Fredericks, who was a Milles student. Murphy is also honored with a museum in his home town, Harbor Beach, Michigan. Te facility is housed in former family property and contains numerous personal artifacts from his life. The Murphy Museum is open during the summer months

Murphy's personal and official files are archived at the Bentley Historical Library of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and are open for research. This also includes an oral history project about Murphy.[49] His correspondence and other official documents are deposited in libraries around the country.[50]

In memory of Murphy, one of three University of Michigan Law School alumni to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Washington, D.C.-based attorney John H. Pickering, who was a law clerk for Murphy, donated a large sum of money to the law school as a remembrance, establishing the Frank Murphy Seminar Room.[4]

Murphy was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Law degree by the University of Michigan in 1939.[8]

The University of Detroit has a Frank Murphy Honor Society.[51]

The Sweet Trials: Malice Aforethought is a play written by Arthur Beer, based on the trials of Ossian and Henry Sweet, and derived from Kevin Boyle's Arc of Justice.[52]

The Detroit Public Schools named Frank Murphy Elementary in his honor.[53]

Personal life[]

Murphy was a confirmed bachelor, leading to speculation about his personal life. Speculation has been recorded about the sexual orientation of a few justices who were lifelong bachelors, but no unambiguous evidence exists proving that they were gay. Perhaps the greatest body of circumstantial evidence surrounds Justice Murphy, who was dogged by "[r]umors of homosexuality [...] all his adult life".[54] According to Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. The Supreme Court:

For more than 40 years, Edward G. Kemp was Frank Murphy's devoted, trusted companion. Like Murphy, Kemp was a lifelong bachelor. From college until Murphy's death, the pair found creative ways to work and live together. [...] When Murphy appeared to have the better future in politics, Kemp stepped into a supportive, secondary role.[55]

As well as Murphy's close relationship with Kemp, Murphy's biographer, historian Sidney Fine, found in Murphy's personal papers a letter that "if the words mean what they say, refers to a homosexual encounter some years earlier between Murphy and the writer." But the letter's veracity cannot be confirmed, and review of all the evidence led Fine to conclude he "could not stick his neck out and say [Murphy] was gay".[56]




  1. This and a number of other books on Murphy by Fine are part of a list of 50 "essential" Michigan history books selected by noted historians. "50 essential Michigan History books". Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries. Archived from the original on November 16, 2011.,1607,7-140-54504_50206_54518-57682--,00.html. Retrieved September 25, 2011. 


  1. "Federal Judicial Center: Frank Murphy". December 12, 2009. Retrieved December 12, 2009. 
    • Frank Murphy at the Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, a public domain publication of the Federal Judicial Center.
  2. "Article: Michigan Lawyers in History-Justice Frank Murphy, Michigan's Leading Citizen". January 1, 1937. Archived from the original on February 2, 2009. Retrieved February 19, 2009. 
  3. 4.0 4.1 "University of Michigan Law Quadrangle Notes on Frank Murphy." (PDF). Archived from the original on August 6, 2010. 
  4. Rapp, Linda. "Frank Murphy, 1890–1949". 
  5. Fine, Frank Murphy, The Detroit Years, p. 58.
  6. Fine, Frank Murphy, The Detroit Years, p. 73.
  7. 8.0 8.1 Fine, Sidney (1984). Frank Murphy, The Detroit Years. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-472-32949-6. 
  8. Finkelman, Paul (October 10, 2006). Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties. Routledge. p. 2304. ISBN 978-0-415-94342-0. 
  9. Boyle, Kevin (2004). Arc of justice: a saga of race, civil rights, and murder in the Jazz Age. Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-8050-7145-0. 
  10. "Ossian Haven Sweet". American National Biography. 
  11. "Judge Frank Murphy's charge to the jury, People vs. Sweet". Famous American Trials. University of Missouri, Kansas City. 
  12. "The U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM)". 
  13. Holli, Melvin G. (1999). The American Mayor: The Best & the Worst Big-City Leaders. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press. 
  14. Gale, Thomson (2004). "Frank Murphy". 
  15. Connell, Mike (July 19, 2009). "Murphy: a judge – not a robot". Times Herald. Port Huron, MI. Retrieved September 25, 2011. 
  16. Professor Neil Leighton, Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan-Flint.
  17. "Detroit News on the Flint UAW/GM sit-down strike.". 
  18. "The Sit-Down Strike at General Motors". Detroit News. Archived from the original on July 9, 2012. 
  19. "Flint Sit-down strike end anniversary". Detroit Free Press. February 10, 2008. [full citation needed]
  20. Tushnet, Mark V. (1996). Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936–1961. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-510468-4. 
  21. Frank Murphy at the Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, a public domain publication of the Federal Judicial Center.
  22. "Supreme Court Historical Society on Hughes Court". Supreme Court Historical Society. Archived from the original on February 7, 2009. 
  23. "Supreme Court Historical Society on Stone Court". Supreme Court Historical Society. Archived from the original on July 24, 2008. 
  24. "Supreme Court Historical Society on Vinson Court". Supreme Court Historical Society. Archived from the original on October 6, 2008. 
  25. See generally, Norris, Harold (1965). Mr. Justice Murphy and the Bill of Rights. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications;  includes some of Murphy's opinions, as well as a biography.
  26. 27.0 27.1 Maveal, Gary (March 2000). "Michigan Lawyers in History: Justice Frank Murphy, Michigan's Leading Citizen". p. 368. Archived from the original on February 2, 2009. 
  27. Woodford, Howard J., Jr. (1968). Mr. Justice Murphy: A Political Biography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 
  28. Ball, Howard (1996). Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-19-507814-5. 
  29. Ball, Howard (1996). Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 212. ISBN 978-0-19-507814-5. 
  30. "Full text of Steele v. Louisville & Nashville R. Co.". 
  31. "Full text of Loving v. Virginia". 388 U.S. 1. 
  32. Lopez, Ian F. Haney (February 1, 2007). "'A Nation of Minorities': Race, Ethnicity and Reactionary Colorblindness". Retrieved September 25, 2011. 
  33. "Oyez: U.S. Supreme Court media on Frank Murphy". 
  34. Meyer, Zlati (January 24, 2009). "Murphy Unveils Anti-Nazi Effort". Detroit Free Press. Archived from the original on February 23, 2014. 
  35. Catledge, Turner (1944-07-22). "Truman Nominated for Vice Presidency". The New York Times. 
  36. "Franklin Roosevelt". American President, An Online Reference Resource. 
  37. Edelheit, Abraham J.; Edelheit, Hershel (1994). History of the Holocaust: A Handbook and Dictionary. Boulder: Westview Press. p. 365. ISBN 978-0-8133-2240-7. 
  38. "(Frank) Murphy's Law". 
  39. "Justice Murphy Engaged to Wed". July 24, 1949.,6545769&dq=joan+cuddihy&hl=en. 
  40. See also, Christensen, George A. (1983). Here Lies the Supreme Court: Gravesites of the Justices (Yearbook). Supreme Court Historical Society. 
  41. Christensen, George A. (February 19, 2008). "Here Lies the Supreme Court: Revisited". University of Alabama. pp. 17–41. 
  42. "Wayne County Prosecutor's webpage.". Archived from the original on January 31, 2009. 
  43. "Michigan Legal Milestones.". Archived from the original on January 14, 2009. 
  44. "Carl Milles sculptures, Detroit News.". Archived from the original on January 21, 2013. 
  45. Photograph of Carl Milles' The Hand of God, evidencing why it was put on top of a 24-foot (7.3 m) spire.
  46. Lidén, Elisabeth (1986). Between Waters and Heaven: Carl Milles, Search for American Commissions. Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell International. 
  47. Zacharias, Pat (September 5, 1999). "The Monuments of Detroit". The Detroit News'. Archived from the original on July 8, 2012. Retrieved September 25, 2011. 
  48. "Bentley Historical Library.". 
  49. List of repositories of Murphy papers. Note: this list does not mention the Central Michigan University Clarke Historical Library; nor does it mention a number of other sources otherwise referenced in this article. See also lists in Bibliography, including speeches and writings, of William Francis "Frank" Murphy, 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. See also "Federal Judicial Center: Frank Murphy". December 12, 2009. Archived from the original on 2010-05-30. Retrieved December 12, 2009. 
  50. "Frank Murphy Honor Society, University of Detroit honors Judge Julian Cook.". Archived from the original on May 12, 2009. 
  51. "The Sweet Trials: University of Detroit Mercy". 
  52. "Frank Murphy School.". "List of Detroit Public Elementary Schools.". 
  53. Murdoch, Joyce; Price, Deb (2001). Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. The Supreme Court. New York: Basic Books. p. 18. 
  54. Murdoch, Joyce; Price, Deb (2001). Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. The Supreme Court. New York: Basic Books. pp. 19–20. 
  55. Quoted in Murdoch, Joyce; Price, Deb (2001). Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. The Supreme Court. New York: Basic Books. p. 19. 

Further reading[]

External links[]

Political offices
Preceded by
Charles Bowles
Mayor of Detroit
Succeeded by
Frank Couzens
Preceded by
Ted Roosevelt
Governor-General of the Philippines
Succeeded by
Manuel Quezon
as President of the Philippines
Preceded by
Frank Fitzgerald
Governor of Michigan
Succeeded by
Frank Fitzgerald
Diplomatic posts
New office High Commissioner to the Philippines
Succeeded by
Weldon Jones
Party political offices
Preceded by
Arthur Lacy
Democratic nominee for Governor of Michigan
1936, 1938
Succeeded by
Murray Van Wagoner
Legal offices
Preceded by
Homer Cummings
United States Attorney General
Succeeded by
Robert Jackson
Preceded by
Pierce Butler
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Succeeded by
Tom Clark

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