Clear erosion of public confidence

Since the June 20014 videotape of Judge John Murphy threatening to commit violence against an assistant public defender went viral, the only question has been the appropriate sanction; the judge admitted the facts and was remorseful about his misconduct, which also included resuming his docket while defendants were without counsel.  The hearing panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission recommended that he be suspended without pay for 120 days, publicly reprimanded, fined $50,000 plus costs, and required to continue to participate in a mental health therapy program and to complete judicial education courses.  The Florida Supreme Court disagreed, however, and last week removed him from office.  Inquiry Concerning Murphy (December 18, 2015).

On June 2, 2014, the judge had a verbal altercation with assistant public defender Andrew Weinstock after Weinstock refused to waive speedy trial for his client.  The judge stated, “You know if I had a rock, I would throw it at your [sic] right now.  Stop pissing me off.  Just sit down.”  When Weinstock refused to sit down, asserting his right to stand and represent his clients, the judge shouted, “I said sit down.  If you want to fight, let’s go out back and I’ll just beat your ass.”  The 2 men left the courtroom and met in the hall.

Although there is no video of the events in the hallway, the courtroom audio captured the judge remarking, “Alright you, you want to fuck with me?” and sounds of a scuffle.  A deputy separated them.  Weinstock requested that the judge be arrested for hitting him twice in the face, but no arrest was made.  There was no evidence, other than his testimony, that Weinstock had been hit.  The hearing panel found that there was no clear and convincing evidence that the judge struck Weinstock and could not determine which of them initiated physical contact.

The Court noted it examined judicial misconduct for present fitness to hold office “’from two perspectives:  its effect on the public’s trust and confidence in the judiciary as reflected in its impact on the judge’s standing in the community, and the degree to which past misconduct points to future misconduct fundamentally inconsistent with the responsibilities of judicial office.’”  It concluded:

Focusing first on the effects on the public’s trust in the judiciary, we must conclude that Judge Murphy is not presently fit to serve.  Judge Murphy used profanity in an open courtroom and threatened violence against an attorney appearing before him.  This is the sort of egregious conduct that erodes the public’s confidence.  It is without question that except for the June 2, 2014, incident, Judge Murphy has been a good judge.  Notwithstanding his prior judicial performance, Judge Murphy’s total lack of self-control became a national spectacle—an embarrassment not only to the judge himself but also to Florida’s judicial system.  Given the clear erosion of public confidence in the judiciary caused by his misconduct, removal is an appropriate sanction.

* * *

On June 2, 2014, Judge Murphy threatened an assistant public defender with violence in open court, challenged him to a physical fight, engaged in the threatened struggle in which the two men had to be physically separated by a deputy, and reassumed the bench to handle cases where the defendants were without the presence of their attorney.  Because of Judge Murphy’s appalling behavior, we conclude that there is clear and convincing evidence that Judge Murphy engaged in “conduct unbecoming a member of the judiciary demonstrating a present unfitness to hold office.” . . .  Judge Murphy’s conduct is fundamentally inconsistent with the responsibilities of judicial office and necessitates his removal.  “[T]hrough his own actions culminating in the misconduct in this case, Judge [Murphy] has lost the public’s confidence in his ability to perform his judicial duties in a fair, evenhanded, and even-tempered manner.”

The Murphy case will no doubt be one of the “Top Judicial Ethics Stories of 2015” discussed during a free webinar presented on Friday January 15, 2016, from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. central time by the National Center for State Courts Center for Judicial Ethics.  The webinar will review the 2015 cases and developments in judicial ethics and discipline that grabbed the headlines and illuminated current and recurring issues in judicial conduct, including Facebook and e-mail, campaign fund-raising, gay marriage, and appropriate sanctions.  SpeakersColin Winchester, Executive Director, Utah Judicial Conduct Commission * Cynthia Gray, Director, Center for Judicial Ethics, National Center or State Courts.  The webinar is free, but you must sign up ahead of time.  Click this link to sign up: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/1087418470610271489.  If you have any questions, contact Lauren Roberts at lroberts@ncsc.org.

 

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