June 17, 2014
Last week I read a disturbing article about what should have been a routine criminal arraignment in Brevard County Florida. According to the article, Judge John Murphy became embroiled in a dispute with a public defender when he refused to waive his client’s right to a fair trial. The judge is quoted as saying to the lawyer, “You know, if I had a rock, I’d throw it at you right now. Stop (expletive deleted) me off. Just sit down.”
At this point, the judge might be forgiven for a lack of civility, professionalism, and coarse language, but he didn’t stop there. Instead he continued, “If you want to fight, let’s go out back, and I’ll just beat your (expletive deleted).” Whereupon, both the judge and the attorney left the courtroom, and, according to the attorney, the judge grabbed him by the collar and began punching him until the scuffle was broken up by deputies.
But that wasn’t the worst part. When the judge returned to the courtroom, without the lawyer, the people in the courtroom applauded the judge. Thus, we the people spontaneously forgave the judge his dereliction of duty, his violation of his oath of his office, and perhaps the criminal law, all because of our fascination with conflict and violence.
Two lessons from my training as a lawyer and a magistrate come to mind. One of my wisest law professors, in his first year of teaching, told me, “there are many times to act angry in the practice of law, but there is never a time to be angry.” The second is the observation made about U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel, who I had the honor and privilege of clerking for after graduating from law school: “He brings a dignity to the courtroom that lets everyone leave with theirs intact.”
Obviously, Judge Murphy failed both lessons. The fascinating question is did he lead those present in his courtroom to their loss of dignity in applauding his violence? Or did he follow them? Without knowing more about the political climate in Brevard County, it’s difficult to say. However, we have all heard words of admiration for “tough” judges, and some attorneys and litigants have experienced incivility, rudeness, or worse from the bench in the name of toughness. Was Judge Murphy leading from the rear and giving the people what they wanted when he assaulted the lawyer?
Too often we see self-indulgence defended in the name of toughness and we hear civility and dignity criticized as weakness. Yet toughness and dignity can and do walk hand in hand. The commentary about Judge Spiegel, who is now in his early 90s and still hearing cases, is apt. He does let everyone leave his courtroom with dignity intact: lawyers and parties, whether they win or lose, Pete Rose when he sentenced him to prison for income tax evasion, and the mother and father of four young children when both parents were led from his courtroom in handcuffs to go to prison for swindling dozens of farmers out of tens of thousands of dollars.
Judge Spiegel is also tough: he was a boxing champion at University of Cincinnati as an undergraduate. He is a combat veteran from the United States Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater in World War II. And, as the criminal defense bar in the Southern District of Ohio will attest, he hands down tough sentences in criminal cases. Judge Spiegel fought forces seeking to destroy the right to live under the rule of law. Judge Murphy destroyed the rule of law by fighting. Our challenge, as citizens, is to know the difference.
Robert Clark Neff, Jr.
The Neff Law Firm, Ltd.