Murphy, Frank

views updated Jun 27 2018


Frank Murphy (April 13, 1890–July 19, 1949) held more high public offices than almost any other resident of Michigan in the entire history of the state. He served successively as first assistant U. S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan (1919-1922), judge of the Detroit Recorder's Court (1924-1930), mayor of Detroit (1930-1933), last governor-general of the Philippines and first United States high commissioner to the Philippines (1933-1936), governor of Michigan (1937-1938), attorney-general of the United States (1939-1940), and justice of the U. S. Supreme Court (1940-1949).

The dominating event of Murphy's Detroit mayoralty was the Great Depression. No mayor in the nation did more to deal with the Depression than Murphy did. Detroit was one of the few cities in the nation at the time that provided public relief, and Murphy extended city aid to the needy to the extent that funds permitted, the Welfare Department at one point assisting 229,000 persons. The department's efforts were supplemented by the Murphy-created Mayor's Unemployment Committee, which registered the unemployed, maintained a free employment bureau, distributed clothing and emergency relief to those in need, maintained emergency lodges for homeless men, initiated a school lunch program for indigent children, provided legal aid for the poor, and sponsored a successful thrift garden program. As Detroit neared bankruptcy—the city defaulted on its bonds in 1933—Murphy convened a conference of U.S. mayors in an effort to secure federal aid. This action led to the establishment of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, with Murphy as its first president.

Murphy helped to restore faith in Detroit's government at a time when civic morale was at a low ebb. He provided Detroit with honest, economical, and efficient government; made excellent appointments that accorded recognition to the city's blacks, Jews, and white ethnic minorities; extended the city's merit pay system; improved the city's police force; ousted the last remaining competitor of the city-owned transportation system; initiated a process leading to lower utility rates; and protected the rights of free speech and freedom of assembly in a time of trouble.

When Murphy became Michigan's governor in January 1937, the critical General Motors sit-down strike was already underway, and Murphy played the crucial mediatory role in bringing the strike to an end on February 11 on terms that amounted to a victory for the United Automobile Workers. As governor, Murphy sought to bring the New Deal to Michigan. Long a proponent of social security, he provided the impetus for the enactment by a lame-duck legislature in December 1936 of a liberal state unemployment compensation system, and the next year the legislature liberalized the state's old-age assistance law. The massive impact on Michigan of the recession of 1937 and 1938 led Murphy to call for increased aid from the Works Progress Administration, and the federal government responded to his importunities. Murphy's Michigan New Deal also included a substantial hospital building program, the expansion of public health services, an occupational disease law, rural electrification, liberalized housing legislation, the establishment of a Consumers Bureau, and a consumer-minded Public Utilities Commission.

Murphy raised the tone of state government while he was governor. He was responsible for the enactment and effective implementation of a model state civil service system, the most significant structural reform of his governorship. His administration also provided the state with its first effective budget system, an efficient and nonpolitical purchasing system, an excellent corrections system, an efficiently operated Liquor Control Commission, and a well-managed Corporation and Securities Commission.

Despite his achievements as governor, Murphy, a Democrat, was defeated for reelection in Republican Michigan in 1938. The next year, Roosevelt appointed Murphy to be the nation's attorney general, and he served a notable year in that capacity. He created what became the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, and he successfully crusaded against crime and corruption, prosecuting such notable figures as Kansas City's Democratic boss Tom Pendergast and newspaper publisher Moses Annenberg.

When Supreme Court Justice Pierce Butler died in 1939, Roosevelt appointed Murphy to replace Butler. The appointment, to be sure, perfectly fit the prescription for a successor to Butler, a Catholic from the Midwest, just as it met Roosevelt's general criteria for selecting Supreme Court justices: loyalty to the New Deal, "a libertarian and egalitarian philosophy of government under law," and, with war looming, support for the president's "war aims." It may be, however, that Roosevelt wished to rid himself of an attorney general whose successful prosecution of city bosses and threatened prosecution of others posed a threat to the president's third-term ambitions. Murphy was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on January 16, 1940, and took his judicial oath on February 5. Murphy remained on the Court until his death in 1949.



Fine, Sidney. Frank Murphy, Vol. 1: The Detroit Years; Vol. 2: The New Deal Years; Vol. 3: The Washington Years. 1975–1984.

Howard, J. Woodford. Mr. Justice Murphy: A Political Biography. 1968.

Lunt, Richard D. The High Ministry of Government: ThePolitical Career of Frank Murphy. 1965.

Sidney Fine

Murphy, Frank

views updated May 23 2018


MURPHY, Frank (b. 13 April 1890; d. 19 July 1949), U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Although no United States Supreme Court justices are known for certain to have been gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, Frank Murphy is the most likely possibility. The lifelong bachelor successfully maintained heterosexual appearances throughout his remarkable career, impressing gossip columnists with a cavalcade of attractive girlfriends. All the while, however, he kept suspiciously close company with a key adviser (also a bachelor). Suspicions about Murphy's sexual orientation were restricted to whispers and offhand remarks during his life, but it was common during the 1930s and 1940s for men to conceal their homosexuality in order to have successful careers. It is likely that Murphy's careful discretion allowed him access to one of the nation's highest positions of power, an impressive feat during a period when social paranoia over homosexuality reached unprecedented heights.

Historians describe Frank Murphy as an ardent New Dealer and Democrat, faithful to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's policies and political vision. Murphy was born and raised in Michigan and studied law at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After brief stints as a private attorney and judge, he was elected mayor of Detroit in 1930. As mayor, he created innovative relief programs for the unemployed during the worst years of the Great Depression. These programs captured the attention of the Democratic Party leadership, and in 1933 President Roosevelt, newly elected, appointed Murphy governor general of the Philippines. During the next three years, Murphy oversaw the transition of the Philippines from an American colony to an independent commonwealth.

Upon his return to the United States in 1936, he was elected governor of Michigan. His two-year term was dominated by contentious (and often bloody) labor battles between General Motors and the United Auto Workers. As the United Auto Workers pioneered labor militancy through its use of sit-down strikes, business leaders demanded a swift crackdown on the rebellious laborers. Murphy's refusal to send in troops in 1937 was a significant boost to the American labor movement, provoking critics to condemn his handling of the situation as "feminine." After losing his reelection bid in 1938, Murphy served as U.S. attorney general until his successful nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1940, where he served until his death in 1949. As a Supreme Court justice his decisions consistently defended free speech, freedom of religion, and minority rights. Perhaps his most famous—and controversial—defense of minority rights came during the 1946 Yamashita case. In a climate of racist anti-Japanese hysteria, Murphy argued in a dissent to the majority opinion that war crimes trials being conducted against Japanese generals after World War II were unconstitutional.

Although Murphy's sexuality was never a source of public discussion during his lifetime, diaries of contemporary figures such as the columnist Drew Pearson and presidential advisor Harry Hopkins reveal that many people assumed that Murphy was homosexual. In addition to his theatrical mannerisms and flamboyant fashion sense, Murphy's lifelong companionship with aide and adviser Edward G. Kemp raised many eyebrows. Kemp and Murphy met while undergraduates at the University of Michigan. They served together in World War I and, after completing their military service, formed a law practice together. As Murphy's career took off, Kemp remained Murphy's primary adviser and closest confidante until Murphy's death in 1949. The two lifelong bachelors frequently shared living quarters. Their relationship had many characteristics in common with the famous relationship between Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover and his lifelong assistant, Clyde Tolson. Ironically, prevailing social prejudices protected both couples. Because homosexuals were thought to be criminals, degenerates, and psychopaths according to the logic of the day, the American public assumed that persons of Murphy's or Hoover's stature simply could not be homosexual.

The press never hinted that Murphy and Kemp's relationship was anything other than professional. In fact, newspapers frequently printed stories describing the supposed girlfriends of Murphy who accompanied him to social functions. Murphy kept a busy social calendar, and as was the case with many gay movie stars of the same era, the girlfriends served to deflect suspicions about his private life. Murphy announced two engagements late in his life, but did not follow through on either of them. One frustrated fiancée called off her engagement to Murphy after repeated postponements on his part, even after she had converted to Catholicism to please him. The other engagement included plans for a secret wedding service, to be attended only by Kemp and a personal secretary (all four would then live together), but Murphy died a month before the wedding date.


Fine, Sidney. Frank Murphy. 3 vols. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975–1984.

Howard, J. Woodford. Mr. Justice Murphy: A Political Biography. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Lunt, Richard D. The High Ministry of Government: The Political Career of Frank Murphy. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1965.

Murdoch, Joyce, and Deb Price. Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Craig M. Loftin

see alsofederal law and policy.

The most extensive discussion of Murphy's sexual orientation appears in Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. The Supreme Court, pp. 18–21, by Joyce Murdoch and Deb Price.

Frank Murphy

views updated May 21 2018

Frank Murphy

Frank Murphy (1890-1949), American jurist and diplomat, campaigned against municipal corruption and crime as U.S. attorney general. He was a liberal sympathizer of the Filipino independence movement when he was governor general and high commissioner of the Philippine Islands.

Frank Murphy was born in Harbor Beach, Mich., on April 13, 1890. He developed an enduring hatred against "industrial slavery" as a boy worker in a local starch factory. With his mother's teaching of racial equality and Christian love, Murphy evolved into a dynamic defender of the underprivileged. He worked his way through the University of Michigan. After receiving his law degree in 1914, he worked as a law clerk in Detroit and taught in a night school.

At the outbreak of World War I Murphy enlisted and served in France. After the war he studied law in Trinity College, Dublin, and in Lincoln's Inn, London. He was chief assistant to the U.S. attorney of Eastern Michigan District (1919-1920) and was reputed never to have lost a case. After private practice (1920-1923) he was appointed judge of Recorder's Court in Detroit (1923-1930) and handled criminal cases. He was mayor of Detroit from 1930 to 1933.

In 1932 Murphy was appointed governor general of the Philippines. He demonstrated his generous sympathy for the plight of the Filipino masses, especially for the land-hungry and oppressed tenant farmers, and emphasized the need for social justice. He was high commissioner of the islands in 1935-1936. In an interview in 1947 he expressed his belief that a revolution by the workers and peasants against the prevailing inequality in the Philippines was inevitable and bound to win.

When Murphy became governor of Michigan in 1936, he was faced with a sitdown strike by General Motors workers. The corporation obtained a court order to compel the workers to quit striking, but Murphy refused to enforce it by calling the troops; for this he was severely criticized by the establishment. Although acclaimed by liberals, he lost the support of politicians and workers and was defeated for reelection in 1938. Appointed in 1939 as U.S. attorney general, he waged a relentless crusade against crime syndicates, notably against Thomas Pendergast in Kansas City, and political racketeers. His indictment of 16 alleged Communists and fellow travelers in Detroit for having recruited volunteers for Loyalist Spain earned him the censure of liberals throughout the country.

President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Murphy associate justice of the Supreme Court in 1940 in recognition of his support of the New Deal program. As a member of the five-man liberal majority on the Court, Murphy fought all forms of racketeering and safeguarded the rights of minorities. In April he wrote the decision invalidating antipicket laws and thus won general praise for his firm stand against antistrike measures.

After 15 years of service in the Justice Department, Murphy died in Detroit on July 19, 1949. Quiet in manner, courteous, somewhat ascetic and pious, Murphy followed his motto, "Speak softly and hit hard," in his work. He expressed the ruling principle of his life thus: "I should like to belong to that small company of public servants and others who are content to do some of the homely and modest task of perfecting integrity in government and making government more efficient and orderly."

Further Reading

Harold Norris, ed., Mr. Justice Murphy and the Bill of Rights (1965), has a biography of Murphy along with some of his Supreme Court opinions. The best source for Murphy's life is Richard D. Lunt, The High Ministry of Government: The Political Career of Frank Murphy (1965). A useful biography of Murphy by J. P. Rodie is in Allison Dunham and Philip B. Kurland, eds., Mr. Justice (1956; rev. ed. 1964). The Philippine background is given in Theodore Friend, Between Two Empires: The Ordeal of the Philippines, 1929-1946 (1965).

Additional Sources

Fine, Sidney, Frank Murphy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975-c1984. □