Gov. Martin O'Malley nominated appellate Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. to Maryland's Court of Appeals yesterday, using his first opportunity to make over the state's highest court by choosing a jurist known for his depth of experience and moderate temperament.
Murphy, chief judge of the state's second-highest court, would fill the vacancy created by the mandatory retirement of Judge Alan M. Wilner, who left the bench this year. Age limits on the court will give O'Malley two more opportunities to fill vacancies on the seven-member Court of Appeals in the coming months.
Though O'Malley had a slate of well-regarded candidates to choose from - including Chief Public Defender Nancy S. Forster and Robert N. McDonald, the head of the opinions and advice division of the attorney general's office - Murphy was considered the odds-on favorite for the post on the state's highest court. His appointment also would give O'Malley the chance to name the chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals.
"Chief Judge Murphy brings over twenty years of experience as a judge to the State's highest Court," O'Malley said in a statement. "He is very highly regarded for his integrity, intellect, scholarship, and service to his community. I received recommendation letters from judges, lawyers, and citizens from every region of the State speaking of his exemplary service as a lawyer, as a judge, and as a citizen."
O'Malley has said he is not screening applicants based on their ideological views, but court watchers say his picks could reshape the court. The three judges the governor will replace are known to represent the court's more moderate-to-conservative wing, whereas O'Malley has relatively liberal views on some issues, notably the death penalty, which he opposes.
Murphy, 63, of Baltimore County, was backed for the seat by plaintiffs' lawyers and defense lawyers alike. Court observers describe him as a fair-minded judge with a deep knowledge of the law and without obvious political leanings.
"I've found myself in court when a judge doesn't know the answer to a question, and they say they're going to go research a legal issue. Later, you find out all they did is go call Judge Murphy," said Andrew I. Alperstein, a former Baltimore County prosecutor who now works as a criminal-defense attorney. "Their version of `research' is to call Judge Murphy for advice."
Appointments to the Court of Appeals require confirmation by the state Senate, which will hold a hearing for Murphy's nomination after it reconvenes next month. Republicans have expressed worry that O'Malley might try to shift the bench to the left, but Murphy's nomination does not appear to have stoked those fears.
"He's rather scholarly," said Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican and an attorney who is active in judicial issues. "I wouldn't put a judicial temperament on him as being left or right. I think he gives you a fair analysis on a case-by-case basis on the facts as they are presented and applies the law appropriately. If you lose with him, you know you lost it because of your case, not any other reason."
Murphy was appointed to the Baltimore County Circuit Court in 1984. He became a Court of Special Appeals judge in 1993 and chief of that court in 1996. Previously, he worked in private practice, for the Baltimore Legal Aid Bureau and as deputy state's attorney in Baltimore. He is a 1965 graduate of Boston College and earned a juris doctor degree from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1969.
"Prior to his appointment as a judge, Joe was known as a lawyer's lawyer," Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who served with Murphy on the Circuit Court, said in a statement. "He was a superb litigator with a very busy practice, but he always had time to help other attorneys when they asked for his advice and counsel. When he became a Circuit Court judge and later Chief Judge of the Court of Special Appeals, Joe almost immediately became known as a judge's judge."
Murphy has taught at the University of Maryland School of Law, the University of Baltimore School of Law, the Maryland Judicial Institute and the Maryland Institute for Continuing Professional Education of Lawyers. He also is the author of the Maryland Evidence Handbook, which he updates annually.
Wilner left the bench this year after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70. He occupied a seat on the court designated for Baltimore and Harford counties. Judge Dale R. Cathell from the Eastern Shore also retired this year after turning 70. Applications for Cathell's seat are due Dec. 12. Judge Irma S. Raker of Montgomery County will be required to retire next spring.
Sun reporter Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.