Harold L. Murphy
Harold L. Murphy (File photo)

After nearly 40 years on the federal bench, U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy is taking senior status.

The move opens a judgeship to be filled by the Trump administration, which will inherit two other vacancies on district courts in Georgia.

Murphy, who has presided for decades over the Northern District of Georgia’s Rome division and is approaching his 90th birthday, on Dec. 27 sent a letter to President Barack Obama. It said that on March 31 he will retire from regular active service and serve as a senior judge.

Murphy was appointed to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate only three weeks after he was nominated.

Murphy could not be reached for comment on Friday.

In 2012, the longtime judge was interviewed by his son, King & Spalding partner Paul Murphy, at a meeting of the Atlanta chapter of the Federal Bar Association. The Daily Report story on that interview, published April 18, 2012, under the headline “Judge Murphy’s Long Ride on Bench” follows:

When U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy was growing up in Haralson County west of Atlanta during the Great Depression, his father bought a mule and put his sons to work raising cotton because “he decided us boys better go to work before we got in trouble.”

“I tell you,” said the 85-year-old Murphy at a meeting of the Atlanta chapter of the Federal Bar Association last week. “That will make a lawyer out of you.”

Born in 1927, Murphy—who has served as a federal judge in the Rome branch of Georgia’s Northern District for 35 years—grew up in Haralson County decades before its red dirt roads were paved or electricity made its debut in rural Georgia.

“We had no running water. We got our water from the well,” he recalled last week as the keynote speaker at a luncheon at the Federal Bar Association. “My mother washed every Monday in a wash pot, boiling the clothes and rinsing them in a galvanized tub and hanging them on the line to dry.”

Murphy recalled a lifetime of lawyering and judging in an interview with his son, King & Spalding partner Paul B. Murphy, a former U.S. attorney in Georgia’s Southern District.

As the two settled into the interview, Murphy told a story about former Attorney General and Fifth Circuit Judge Griffin Bell and Frank Scarlett, a federal judge in Brunswick from 1946-1968.

The two were running late from lunch at a time when a three-judge appellate panel that included Bell was holding a hearing in Augusta, Georgia, Murphy said. Scarlett, whom Murphy described as “a very unique individual,” assured his lunch companions they didn’t need to rush. “Don’t worry about it, fellers, the circuit can’t start until the monkey’s in the cage.”

Then Murphy turned to his son, “The monkey’s in the cage. Let’s go, Paul.”

Replied the younger Murphy, “I feel like a straight man.”

It was just one of many colorful stories the elder Murphy recounted, often with laughter. He remembered as a child running behind a goat that pulled a cart with his younger brother, though he said the sulky goat ended up as a barbecue dinner after it turned mean.

“There are two judges I know on the bench of the Northern District of Georgia who are familiar with goats,” Murphy told the audience. “I had a pet goat and Judge Jones has a bunch of pet goats.” U.S. District Judge Steve Jones has a small herd of pet goats that he has named after U.S. Supreme Court justices. “And I have concluded statistically, if you would like to be a federal judge, you have to have a pet goat in your background.”

Replied his son: “I wish you had told me that before.”

Appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, Murphy still carries a full caseload, eschewing the senior status that most colleagues his age have chosen. Some of his cases have attracted national attention, including the 1979 racketeering trial of national pornography kingpin Michael Thevis, civil class action litigation that stemmed from the 2002 discovery that a north Georgia crematory had discarded rather than cremated more than 300 corpses, litigation challenging the constitutionality of the state’s voter identification law, and, currently, a civil case being watched nationally that accuses the Murray County School District of causing the suicide of a 17-year-old high school junior by failing to protect him from being bullied.

Murphy said he chose to pursue a law degree because, as a boy, the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover had been among his heroes. “I thought it would be wonderful to be an FBI agent,” he said. At that time, the FBI recruited only lawyers and accountants, he said.

At the University of Georgia School of Law, Murphy counted among his classmates his cousin, Tom Murphy, who would go on to serve 28 years as the speaker of the Georgia House; Carl Sanders, who would go on to be governor and found Troutman Sanders; and Thomas Marshall, who served as chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.

After graduating from law school in 1949, Murphy returned to Haralson County, where he began practicing law with one of only two attorneys in the county who had an annotated Uniform Code of Georgia and a law library. The other one was Tom Murphy’s brother, James—the only lawyer in the county with a secretary, Judge Murphy recalled.

At first, “All I did were menial things,” he said. “I checked titles to real estate, drew deeds and dispossessory warrants. I did personal income tax returns. … It was a pretty miserable life, really. I didn’t know anything, and I knew I didn’t know anything.”

That first year, he made just $650, he said. He argued his first case in what was then known as mayor’s court in Tallapoosa, Georgia. He charged his client $10, “and I’m not sure if he paid,” he recalled. His drunken client had driven his car onto a private lawn “that was pretty and green” and “went round and round and tore the lawn all to pieces,” the judge recalled.

Tallapoosa’s mayor was the presiding judge, Murphy recalled. When one of two policemen to testify against his client took the stand without being sworn in, Murphy protested, asking the mayor: “Your honor, aren’t you going to swear these people”

But the officers objected. “We don’t have to take no oath. We took an oath when we were hired,” the judge recalled. “So, we tried the case without a word of sworn testimony, and I lost the case.” His client, he said, was fined $100.

Murphy said during the early years of his career, he learned his trade by working with the Buchanan, Georgia, lawyer who eventually became his partner trying cases “whether I got paid any money or not.” He watched other cases being tried and “never complained when I was appointed to represent somebody.”

A year after he returned home, Murphy ran for the Georgia House of Representatives. “I always have been interested in public service, and I felt an obligation and a responsibility as a citizen, and I admired the General Assembly at that time,” he said.

His opponent was another lawyer who Murphy said “murdered the English language,” had a girlfriend named Sapphire and had dentures he carried in a handkerchief in his left hand. Murphy, a Democrat, won the race.

“While I was in the Legislature, there were two Republicans, I believe,” he said. Both were from the north Georgia mountains, and the judge described them as “pretty decent fellows.”

“Like I told your mother,” he gently teased his son, who served in the DOJ under George W. Bush, “when you have a child who is a Republican, just remember, you can’t rear a perfect child.”

“I’m not after any political party,” he added wryly. “I just couldn’t resist.”

Murphy left the General Assembly after 10 years, the same year his cousin was elected to the Georgia House. “I had been there 10 years and hadn’t amounted to anything. I had gotten married and needed to pay attention to my law practice rather than politics. … I used to make my relative Tom Murphy very mad. I told people I turned honest and got out of the Legislature. … I wasn’t cut out to take money from people unless I earned it.”

Building a law practice was slow, hard work, the judge recalled. “Most of my colleagues who practiced law had a living because they had a wife who taught school … and supported the family.” One attorney he knew delivered newspapers by bicycle every day to make ends meet.

“You had to work hard, hard, hard if you were going to be a successful lawyer, particularly a trial lawyer,” he recalled. “You had to use your imagination and be willing to work on weekends when your opponents were playing golf or half-drunk somewhere. … I won several cases by the middle of the day Monday because a lawyer didn’t know what was going on.”

As he became established, he tried criminal and civil cases. He remembered once threatening to call a Mynah bird as a witness. A cousin of Murphy’s had stolen the bird from a Tallapoosa store, then returned it the next day. “When I asked him what happened,” Murphy recalled, his cousin replied, “I got drunk and stole the Mynah bird. In fact, it was more interesting to talk to the Mynah bird than the rest of the drunks I was associating with.”

Murphy said that the county district attorney initially insisted on prosecuting his cousin. On the day he approached the DA to talk about the pending charges, Murphy had just lost a case in federal court in Atlanta and, he recalled, was in a foul mood. He found the DA in his office where the judge assigned to the case at the time was sitting on a table reading a newspaper.

Murphy asked when the case was going to trial because, “I’m going to subpoena the Mynah bird,” he informed them. “I’m going to bring him in here and say, ‘Raise your right wing.’ I’m going to question him about the situation. He was in captivity and may have requested that Billy Murphy’s cousin take him out of that store.”

“I’m deadly serious about that,” Murphy continued. “I’m going to put his on the stand.” At that point, the judge replied, “We don’t have time for that kind of trash in court.” The case against his cousin was dropped.

Murphy had been in practice 22 years when he became Superior Court judge of the Tallapoosa Circuit in 1971. He said he received a telephone call from his cousin Tom Murphy, then speaker pro tem of the Georgia House, who told him to come to the Capitol the following Friday. “The governor’s going to swear you in as a judge,” Murphy’s cousin told him.

Six years later, Carter named Murphy to the federal bench.

“I wanted to be a federal judge,” Murphy explained. “I thought it was the top of the legal profession. And, frankly, I still do. … It’s a pleasure to be able to work and do what you think is right every day the best you can.

“I love to practice law,” the judge continued. “I love the legal profession. I appreciate good lawyers. As far as I’m concerned, there’s not any more pleasure than trying a case with good lawyers on both sides. It is easy. It is fascinating. And you get a good result. So when it’s all over with, you feel good about it.

“I look forward to going to work every morning,” he continued. “To tell you the truth, I work so hard practicing law that I wound up with no hobbies, so I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t go to court, go to work every day.”