Their goal was to create a uniform system of local courts throughout the state, led by the tough-minded Sweeney. And to abolish the patchwork of courts -- People's Court, Trial Magistrate's Court, Municipal Court and the notorious Traffic Court -- that had been giving justice a bad name.
"In Baltimore City, Traffic Court was openly corrupt, no question about it," recalled Karwacki, who was a lawyer in Baltimore in the days before the District Court. "I don't care what you were charged with; if you had the right lawyer, tickets seemed to work themselves out."
Said Murphy: "It seemed like politicians ran the place. Senators appointed the trial magistrates, so word would get out that so-and-so had a friend coming down and you ought to look kindly upon him. Whatever it was, it wasn't good."
It also was an era in which the term "Halls of Justice" seemingly was used loosely.
"I remember going to the old magistrate's court and having to walk through a garage with grease on the floor," said Murphy. "They were lubricating cars."
The success of the District Court was stunning. Today, the system processes 1.9 million cases a year, including traffic cases and landlord-tenant matters, and is a model for local courts around the country.
A few losing campaigns
Not all of Murphy's reform plans have made it as far. Over three decades, the chief judge's gaze sometimes has exceeded his reach.
Among Murphy's losing campaigns were proposals seeking major reform of the circuit courts and prosecutors' offices throughout the state.
Murphy pushed for a merger of the state's 24 circuit courts into a single system financed by the state -- a controversial proposal because it eventually would have eliminated elected court clerks and their limited patronage power.
The chief judge also sought to eliminate the present system of elected state's attorneys in each of the state's 23 counties and Baltimore City. He would replace it with a single prosecutor's office for Maryland.
Neither has happened.
Discussion of unifying the prosecutors' offices panicked officials those offices.
"I brought this up in a speech, and one of them wanted to hang me," said Murphy. "This guy got up and screamed, 'Clean up your own house first,' whatever that meant."
After years of trying, Murphy concedes there won't be a unified prosecutors' office on his watch.
But he still think he's right. And he still relishes the debate.
"In some of these counties, they get a difficult case and run to the attorney general, asking for a lawyer to try it," he said. "If the system were regional, it would be much stronger. But you can't change history. We tried and tried and tried."
Eventually, Murphy believes, the state will see the light on another of his reform proposals: eliminating the requirement that circuit judges run in contested elections.
Thirteen years ago, Murphy warned that unless such elections were eliminated, "Armageddon is close at hand for the circuit courts of Maryland."
Now, Murphy says a system that requires circuit judges to run in elections "is the most barbaric in the world."
"First of all, [judges] go out and try to collect money from the very lawyers who appear before them. The appearance is awful. Then, the voters often don't know one judge from another. If you're on the ballot and your name begins with an A insteads of a Z, you're going to get 20,000 more votes. It's the worst of all worlds."
Middle of the middle
As a jurist, Murphy will be remembered as the moderate chief judge of a moderate Court of Appeals. "He's in the middle of the middle of the road," said Daniel M. Clements, a Baltimore lawyer and former president of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association.
Added Bell, the Court of Appeals judge: "He's the person on the court willing to back off hard and firm opinions to come up with a consensus."
Murphy doesn't object to the labels. "I don't think I have a hard-line conservative or liberal philosophy," he said. "I look at each case and say: 'Under the Constitution of Maryland, I have an obligation to apply the laws whether I like them or not.'
"One of the most important things in appellate work is stability in the law, particularly in commercial areas, where lawyers have to advise their clients in big-money matters. If you change the law, just willy-nilly, the lawyer looks silly. If the court gets a reputation for doing that, no businessman will be safe."
This year, say some in the legal community, the court took a step to the right in deciding cases involving punitive damages.
Plaintiffs' lawyers have howled about the decisions, including one in which the court overturned a $1.5 million award to the widow of a Curtis Bay shipyard mechanic. The critics say the court's opinion shields big business and puts Maryland out of step with the laws in other states.