Joseph Murphy III
Joseph Murphy III (Melanie Bell)

Ask Broward County Court Judge Joseph A. Murphy III about cooking and be prepared. He has a lot to say. He can tell you about the importance of good knives, and good pots and pans, about the importance of adding a pinch of red pepper to the hummus he makes from scratch.

He’s even more passionate about the law. That probably should be expected from a former Marine and civil rights lawyer.

“I think when I was in Vietnam, I realized what it was like for people to live with no rights,” Murphy said. “And that became a thing with me, that the Constitution and the law is very important. … That piece of paper is the only thing between you and tyranny.”

Growing up in New Jersey, a career in law was merely a possibility. “I kind of had it in the back of my head that I might want to be a lawyer,” he said.

Murphy decided on it definitely because of the battlefield wounds that put him in hospitals for more than two years, cost him an ankle in one leg and a knee in the other, and earned him a Purple Heart.

“I had spent a lot of time in a wheelchair. And then I was on braces and crutches and then rehabbed out of that, so I definitely said, ‘I’ve got to get an education where I won’t have to be on my feet.’ ”

Still, Murphy relies on his cane only when he has to or for long distances.

He came to Florida because of a college buddy, and when the legal aid job he had been promised disappeared with a funding shortage before he even started, “I went knocking on doors, looking for a job.”

A lot of them.

“Everyone I interviewed with, I asked them for leads with other law firms and who did the hiring,” he said. “I ended up meeting so many lawyers that when I went into practice, I knew them.”

Satisfying Job

He wound up at a civil firm but longed for more litigation experience. He soon got an offer from the Broward state attorney’s office. He had worked his way up to the felony division when “I was approached by an attorney who wanted an associate.”

That was George Allen, “the first black graduate from University of Florida law school,” Murphy said.

He took it and wound up handling a variety of civil rights cases along with some criminal and civil work. The rights cases took him all over the state.

“Let me say this, when you went into some of the small counties, you were not made to feel welcome,” Murphy said.

In 1982, he launched his own general litigation practice, doing both criminal and civil cases, including one in which his client was murdered by a hit man hired by her ex-husband.

In 1995, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed him to the county bench. He’s been there ever since.

“The bench has been more than I expected it to be,” he said. “It’s a very satisfying job, particularly if you keep in perspective what you’re doing.”

He handles both civil family matters and criminal cases. “You’re not oftentimes dealing with hardened criminals,” he said.

Frequently, drug or alcohol abuse are issues in domestic violence and drunken-driving cases.

Both allow for “a lot of creative sentencing,” he said. “Instead of a jail sentence, you would put somebody in a residential rehabilitation program, and then you would make sure that they would be on probation for a period of time long enough, even if you had to give consecutive probations and keep them in after care and monitor them.”

‘Stressful Business’

It doesn’t always work.

“Most people only want to have one contact with the law. And they learn,” Murphy said. But he added, “Some people you have to put in jail. Other people you may want to look at other things because if drugs or alcohol is involved, if you don’t get them off the alcohol or drugs, they’ll be back.”

One of his greatest satisfactions is that “you get to virtually help people every day,” Murphy said. “You basically try to do the best thing you can.”

His courtroom style is “flexible,” he said.

“Obviously that doesn’t mean you allow people to be disrespectful, but you have to work with people,” he said. “I try not to make it unnecessarily stressful. This is a very stressful business. Lawyers and other court personnel are under a lot of stress. So I try to minimize that. Sometimes you can’t.”

Murphy also recognizes that “attorneys, especially criminal attorneys, often have to be in two or three places at the same time. So I am not concerned nor do I say anything if, shall we say, an attorney has a hearing at 9 o’clock and he shows up at 9:30 because he was in Judge Smith’s or Judge Jones’ because I know he can’t be in two places at the same time. And I usually I have a pretty busy docket, so I have plenty to keep me occupied.”