The past year has been a blur of farewells and testimonials for the retiring chief judge of Maryland's Court of Appeals.
A tribute dinner attended by hundreds of lawyers around the state. A musical salute organized by fellow judges. One morning, he reported to work to find his name chiseled in concrete above the entrance of the Annapolis courthouse where he works.
The drumbeat of praise has been so constant, you might conclude that Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy reinvented Maryland's court system.
And maybe he did.
"Murphy has been to the courts what Ford was to the automobile -- he brought them into the modern age," said Robert L. Karwacki, a longtime friend and fellow judge on the Court of Appeals.
"No one is irreplaceable, but he's close -- his record is amazing," said state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who argued cases in front of Murphy as a young lawyer and later in Annapolis, weighed his budget requests.
This week, Murphy officially retires as head of Maryland's judiciary branch. He leaves the bench, nudged out by the state constitutional requirement that judges step down when they turn 70.
For Murphy, retirement apparently comes at the right time.
Two years ago, the chief judge backed a controversial ballot question seeking to raise the retirement age to 75.
The measure failed. And Murphy insists that that didn't displease him. Troubled by a chronic bad back and eager to indulge his passion for reading novels, he says: "I probably would have gone at 70 anyway."
"I see judges getting older and older," he added. "I felt myself beginning to lose powers of concentration. The fact is, it's time."
Murphy's departure leaves the court without one of its most enduring and important figures.
A prolific reformer
For 30 years as an appellate judge, the last 25 as chief of the Court of Appeals, Murphy has been a pragmatic jurist, a hard-nosed administrator and perhaps the most prolific reformer lead the judiciary branch in Maryland.
As chief judge, Murphy has written hundreds of opinions, establishing a record as a solid centrist more comfortable
interpreting the law than making it.
As boss to the state's 252 judges, he has earned a reputation for being without pretention and hard-working to a fault. "He works incessantly," said Karwacki, his colleague on the Court of Appeals.
As a reformer, he is headed for the judicial Hall of Fame, say court observers.
"What he did, I don't think any chief judge of the Court of Appeals had ever done before," said William H. Adkins II, a former Court of Appeals judge.
"He is the father of the modern Maryland judiciary," said Judge Robert M. Bell, Murphy's colleague and sometimes ideological opponent on the Court of Appeals. "I believe history will treat him kindly."
Among Murphy's accomplishments: introducing computer tracking of cases, establishing a system to temporarily recall retired judges, improving judicial pensions, instituting a statewide budgeting process for the judiciary and much more.
"It was a revolution," said Adkins, who served as Murphy's court administrator for nine years before joining the bench.
Murphy even tried -- and failed -- to change the name of the Court of Appeals. Because the court is the last forum for cases in Maryland, Murphy reasoned it should be named, "The Supreme Court of Appeals," an idea he pitched to the General Assembly.
"It didn't do well," Murphy recalled with a chuckle. "One [legislator] stood up at the back of the room and hollered, 'The only group that's supreme here is us!' "
On a fast track
Murphy came to the chief judge's job well-schooled and with a sense of mission. A Baltimore native, Murphy picked up college and law degrees from the University of Maryland. He labored for the attorney general, rising through the ranks to run the office.
In 1967, Murphy was named chief judge of the new Court of Special Appeals. Five years later, then-Gov. Marvin Mandel appointed him to head the state's highest court. At the time, Murphy was 45, the youngest person ever selected for the job.
The succession of high-profile jobs exposed Murphy to judges, lawyers and politicians across the state. It also drove home the failings of the state's court system.
Starting out, Murphy said, he didn't have a grand plan for reforming the judiciary -- "If I had a goal, it was for every judge in the state to be smarter than me, and I succeeded," he said, deflecting a reporter's question.
But within weeks of becoming chief judge, Murphy was at the forefront of a movement to bring about sweeping change.
The most profound may have been one of the first -- the creation of the District Court.
"It's said it was the greatest judicial reform of this century," the chief judge said. "It probably was."
The new court had three architects: Mandel, who pushed legislation through the General Assembly; Robert F. Sweeney, Murphy's longtime pal and the District Court's only chief judge until his retirement last month; and Murphy.