Black History's Legal Legacies: Judge Murphy models hard work and fairness

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Judge began career on the Court of Common Pleas

By Zenell Brown 

Trial Court judges administer justice one case at a time. Most cases do not go to trial and most trials are not high profile. Justice is quiet but powerful. Judge John A. Murphy has served the citizens of Wayne County for the past 36 years as a trial judge on the Third Circuit Court. 

Judge Murphy currently sits in the Civil Division. He is probably the longest-serving judge in the Court, and may be the longest-serving African American judge in the state of Michigan. 

His judicial career began in 1978 when he was elected to the Court of Common Pleas. Courts of Common Pleas concept dates back to old English times and traditions. Murphy can tell you how things were back in the day, name the many Black lawyers and judges who made their way to Recorder’s Court, Third Circuit Court, and the Court of Appeals. 

When the Court of Common Pleas was eliminated, Murphy grandfathered in and became a judge on the newly created 36th District Court. He served in 36th District prior to its move to its Madison Center location. 36th District’s courtrooms were located in the Old County Building and misdemeanors were heard in the basement of the Recorder’s Court, G-1. 

Murphy was one of the early African Americans elected to the Third Circuit Court. His term began in 1986, prior to the Recorder’s Court and 3rd Circuit Court merge, and prior to the creation of the Business Court. Therefore, he heard all types of cases — domestic relations, criminal, and civil. Since his time on the bench, the Family Division was created. Murphy served as the presiding judge of the Civil Division under both Chief Judge Giovan and Virgil Smith. 

As a seasoned veteran judge, Murphy has witnessed and taken part in many of the changes in the legal community. eFiling, the implementation of the Odyssey Case Management system, and Zoom are a few examples. When asked about major challenges the justice system faces today, Murphy pointed out access to justice. The pandemic has impacted the court system which requires the self-represented population to maneuver through eFiling and Zoom to get themselves heard. The Court must endeavor to provide resources without providing legal advice. This challenge exists for government in general. 

As a lifelong Michigander, Murphy graduated from Wayne State University Law School, University of Michigan, and Southeastern High School. His advice to current young students who are aspiring lawyers: “Don’t go by television. That is not typical.” The images portrayed do not represent the realities of practicing law. 

His advice to practicing lawyers was sage as well: It takes hard work and a lot of hours. 

“You have to spend time in the courtroom and with your clients,” he says. “You have to hit the books and be prepared for the questions the judge will ask. If something makes you scratch your head on an issue, it’s likely to be the first question a judge asks. A good reputation of being prepared will last your entire career. You can’t shake a bad reputation. You want to be known for being prepared, hardworking, and taking care of business.”

Justice when it works is not in your face bravado, Murphy explains. It’s humble. It’s patient. And, it’s fair. It is what 36 years of getting up each work day to hear and resolve disputes looks like. Murphy has role modeled and emulated that for us. 

“John, from his Common Pleas service and before, has been a steady strong advocate for justice — not ‘just us,’” said Judge Cynthia Stephens of the Michigan Court Appeals. “He has declined what would have been a much more monetarily rewarding career for an incredible life investment in ‘We the people.’” 

During his 44 years of services,  Murphy has made an invaluable contribution to the entire legal community and the justice system. Black History and American history are better because of him.


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