William Francis Murphy was born in Harbor Beach, Michigan on April 13, 1890. After attending public schools, Frank went on to earn his Bachelor’s of Law degree from the University of Michigan in 1914. Following graduation, he went to work at a Detroit law firm where he represented cases brought by employees against the city. At night, he taught immigrant classes. Frank often remarked that teaching the immigrant classes greatly changed the way that he saw the rest of his life.
As the United States became involved in World War I, Murphy went to France in 1917 with the American Expeditionary Forces. He used his experience as a lawyer to avoid active combat in Germany while studying at Lincoln’s Inn in Dublin, Ireland.
United States Attorney
In August 1918, Frank declined the Democratic nomination for United States Congress before accepting the appointment of the first assistant United States Attorney for Michigan’s Eastern District. He held this position until 1922 when he resigned to form a new law partnership in Detroit and to teach at the University of Detroit during the day and at the Detroit College of Law at night.
Recorder’s Court Judge
By 1929, Frank had returned to political life serving as the Recorder’s Court Judge in the Ossian Sweet case. During this infamous case, Sweet and his family was accused of murder after shooting into a mob of Detroit homeowners who were angry because this African-American man had dared to move into their neighborhood. An all-white jury acquitted Sweet and his family of all charges.
In 1929, Frank chose to run to be Detroit’s mayor as a Democrat. He won the election and took office in 1930 as the Great Depression was starting. The Detroit Free Press names Frank the best mayor Detroit ever had for leading the city through this turbulent period. He sponsored garden to feed the hungry. In order to keep the city’s books balanced, he cut city employees salaries by up to 50 percent, and he ordered the installation of lower wattage light bulbs. He was also instrumental with working with the United States Conference of Mayors in petitioning Washington D.C. for aid to cities.
Governor-general to the Philippines
In order to thank him for his support of the New Deal, President Roosevelt appointed him as governor-general of the Philippines. He held this position from 1933 to 1935 when the position was abolished. He then stayed in the Philippines as the United States High Commissioner for one year. Murphy was instrumental in helping the Philippines move from being a territory to becoming a commonwealth by helping them enact minimum wage laws and supporting women’s suffrage.
Returning to the United States, he launched a successful campaign to become the governor of Michigan. Just 11 days after Frank took office, a strike by the United Auto Workers against General Motors turned bloody. Murphy called in the National Guard to keep the two parties apart. Then, he served as the mediator bringing the two parties to an agreement about a month later.
Murphy was also instrumental in installing the civil service system in Michigan. This put an end to the spoils system in the state; however, it made him very unpopular with many wealthy Michigan residents who had benefitted from the previous system. When he ran for reelection, he was defeated by Frank Fitzgerald who was the same man that he had narrowly beat to become the governor.
Frank Murphy as Attorney General
After being defeated, President Roosevelt nominated him as United States Attorney General. After taking office in 1939, Murphy was instrumental in creating the United States Department of Justice”s civil liberties section under the criminal division.
Murphy was also instrumental in breaking up the political machine in Kansas City, Missouri. Thomas Pendergast was the chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party. He was able to get many of his cohorts elected to office through voter fraud and promises of patronage jobs. Pendergast received large sums of money from his favorite candidates. It is very doubtful that President Truman would have gotten into office without the help of Pendergast. As Attorney General, Murphy worked with authorities to have Pendergast arrested. Finally, Pendergast pled guilty to income tax evasion,. He was sentenced to a year in prison where he had a heart attack, and he never regained his health. Frank was also instrumental in breaking up the political machine in Philadelphia.
United States Supreme Court Justice
In 1940, Frank Murphy was appointed to the United States Supreme Court by President Roosevelt. Many feel that the appointment was to stop Murphy from running against him as Murphy had become immensely popular across the United States.
One of the most controversial cases that the United States Supreme Court heard during Murphy’s tenure was Korematsu V. United States. In this case, six members of the Supreme Court found it legal for Japanese Americans regardless of citizenship to be held in internment camps. The court decided that the United States government was within its rights in carrying out Executive Order 9086. In writing his dissent, Murphy cited racism. It was the first time that the term appeared in a United States Supreme Court decision.
He was constantly protecting individual rights under the First Amendment during his time on the United States Supreme Court. He voted with the majority in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette finding that children of Jehovah Witnesses had the right not to salute the American flag because it went against their religion. In making the decision, the court relied upon the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Murphy voted against the majority in Wolf v. Colorado. In this case, Julius A. Wolf was convicted in Denver’s District Court of conspiracy to perform abortions. At question was rather the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution excluded illegally seized evidence from being presented at trial. The Supreme Court found that states had the right to see and hear evidence that would not be allowed in a federal court. Murphy disagreed with the majority saying this placed an undue burden on district attorneys. The Supreme Court later overturned its ruling in this case.
Frank Murphy’s Death
Frank Murphy was never married. His undying devotion to his mother may have been the reason that he never fell in love. She preceded him in death in 1924.
During his last year on the Supreme Court, Frank Murphy was seldom present to hear arguments. Unable to sleep, he had gone to doctors seeking relief. They prescribed him Demerol and Seconal but eventually refused to give him any more. Murphy then turned to street dealers to get these drugs. Frank Murphy died on July 19, 1949 of a coronary thrombosis.