What is wrong with this picture? On the surface of it, it looks like a judge challenged a defense lawyer to a fight and they both mutually agreed to duke it out behind the courtroom. However, this is NOT the case at all for MANY reasons. When you watch recent news clips, you don’t see defense lawyers telling news reporters that Judge John Murphy has “issues.” No, of course not ! How could they expect to get good plea bargains, rulings and judgments from the judge once they go on the news criticizing him? Let’s get real. So what does the public really know for those who don’t know the judge and who don’t practice criminal law. Here is why this is SO important.
First of all, the venue. A courtroom has rules of decorum. There to enforce the rules are bailiffs. One cannot yell, demean people, or physically fight in court. To make sure it is a safe environment, the public, including defense lawyers, must go through metal detectors. Judges do not. If a defendant, witness, prosecutor, defense lawyer or member of the public were to fight in court they would promptly be escorted out by armed law enforcement. There would also be assault charges if the fight was unprovoked or not mutual combat. A judge may throw someone in jail for contempt for unacceptable behavior. The judge in this case made the following comments to the public defender in open court unprovoked: “You know if I had a rock, I would throw it at you right now.”
“If you want a fight, let’s go out back and I’ll just beat your ass.”
Anyone else making those comments would beheld in contempt, admonished or possibly be charged with terroristic threat. A judge is not above the law. All of this was in response to the public defender stating he would not waive his client’s right to a speedy trial. How can you maintain proper decorum in the courtroom when you can’t maintain proper decorum over yourself? This erodes public confidence in this judge’s courtroom.
Second, the assault. This was not mutual combat. Mutual combat is when two people determine under normal circumstances and on equal footing they will resolve their differences in a fight. Mutual combat is also an understanding that the fight will begin on fair grounds. Even in the duels of the 18thcentury, ex. the Aaron Burr versus Alexander Hamilton duel, there were “seconds” (emissaries) designated to negotiate time, place and rules. Normally a duel involved a flipping of a coin to determine who chose sides, gun, position, etc. Here, as soon as Mr. Weinstock went through the door, the judge grabbed him by the collar and started punching him. His was a total cheap shot and underhanded. There was nothing fair about waiting by the door to spring on him unexpectedly.
Third, the “mutual” element. It is common practice for judges and attorneys to iron out differences back in chambers. No lawyer goes to a judge’s chambers expecting a physical brawl despite any heated words or exchanges (in this case, the only heated words were the judge’s). Judge Murphy has even admitted there was “one” occasion he and a lawyer in chambers resolved such in a normal manner. There is a hierarchy in court much like in the military. When an officer or judge makes an order, the lawyer or enlisted man/woman must follow command. When a judge rushes off the bench and heads towards chambers threatening, it is rationale for the lawyer to expect he wants to talk in chambers, in private. Andrew Weinstock even said as much. Mr. Weinstock is a veteran public defender of thirteen years. News reports confirm he does not have any type of bad reputation with judges.
Fourth, the laws. Had the shoe been on the other foot and the public defender assaulted the judge he could be charged with a felony assault on a public servant. Furthermore, with Judge Murphy’s age, he could have been charged with a felony assault on the elderly. This rendered Mr. Weinstock powerless to defend himself. He could not strike back, lest he risk a felony and his law license. The judge knew this. Had the judge been hurt, with no cameras, the judge could have easily feigned being a victim, with his position and influence. Naturally the local district attorney’s office would stand to benefit by prosecuting the public defender. By causing a scene, the judge actually achieved his intended effect. Immediately after this, the Public Defender’s office moved Mr. Weinstock to another court. This is just wrong. It is virtually impossible for a defense lawyer to have a judge removed from his cases, yet so easy for Judge Murphy to get rid of the public defender not willing to waive his client’s rights. There is something morally wrong with taking advantage of power. That is why crimes of moral turpitude include an assault by a man on a woman and we penalize assaults on children and the elderly where there is an imbalance of power.
Fifth, the irony. It is clear that Judge Murphy is an elderly man. Yet it turns out that Judge Murphy served in the U.S. Army Special Forces. Despite his age, here is a trained fighter attacking a career, middle aged and out of shape defense lawyer. I am sure Mr. Weinstock did not choose a career in the law to hone his jujitsu or aikido skills. Thankfully, the armed bailiffs broke up the melee. Who knows how far Judge Murphy would have gone with his unsuspecting victim? After the fight, true to the nature of an Army Ranger or Navy Seal, he just shook it off and got right back on the bench declaring to the packed courtroom “I will catch my breath eventually. Man, I’man old man.” Talk about being the textbook example of how to resolve differences. Not a good influence in the least. I wonder how many defendants were in court that day for assault?
Which brings me to the last and final point: respect for defense lawyers. See the attached picture of a passage of a 1939 Principles of Criminology textbook by Edwin H. Sutherland, a sociology professor at Indiana University. In it, every part of the judicial system is explained. When it comes to the defense lawyer, it reads “Criminal lawyers are generally in disrepute in the legal profession… they make use of every possible subterfuge and trick to secure acquittal. These include bribery of jurors, intimidation of witnesses, instruction of witnesses in perjury,….” He later extols the public defender system because “technical motions are seldom made." Yet sixty five years later, Judge Murphy exemplifies how little we have come. When I became a lawyer, I received the same training as all the other lawyers. When I took an oath to practice law, it was the same oath all lawyers, including prosecutors and judges took. Our American justice system was founded on principles of fairness and equality. The criminal justice system would be tyranny without defense lawyers. There would be no one making sure the rights of the accused were protected. It is not right to demean defense lawyers for the role we play. Despite the outlandish characterization of the 1939 textbook, defense lawyers uphold the law as much as the prosecutors and judges. The means in which we defend our clients are lawful and integral to the judicial system. The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission should take immediate and authoritative action against Judge John Murphy to restore faith and confidence in the judicial system. No lawyer should fear going to court and being assaulted by a judge with improper judicial temperament. It is important that we set a precedent that this won’t be tolerated in the future. The defendants in his court or in any court should not fear being ruled upon by a judge unfit to serve. Every day Judge John Murphy administers punishment and holds people accountable according to the law. He too must too submit and be held accountable for unlawful conduct most unbecoming for a judge, otherwise confidence in the entire judicial system collapses. It is not an excuse nor is it acceptable for society to sanction such behavior on the basis it was directed at a defense lawyer or public defender, but this is not surprising given the clamor to elect “tough on crime”prosecutors to the bench. It is time to honor not “tough on crime”judges but “smart on crime” judges who treat everyone in the courtroom with respect. Judges are not fit to serve if the refusal of a lawyer to waive his client's rights or any rights for that matter results in improper rulings, much less an unprovoked physical assault. The assault just brings this judge's bad behavior to light. One wonders how much justice he has actually dispensed to those in his court.