Justice Frank Murphy

Today in 1949: Former Michigan Gov. and SCOTUS Justice Frank Murphy Dies

by Ken Coleman, Michigan Advance
July 19, 2020

Frank Murphy, former Michigan governor, and U.S. Supreme Court justice, died on July 19, 1949, after suffering a fatal heart attack. He was 59.

He was serving on the nation’s high court at the time of death. 

Born William Francis Murphy in Sand Beach, Mich. (now known as Harbor Beach) on April 13, 1890, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a degree from its law school. He also fought in World War I.  Murphy served with distinction on federal, state, and local government. His private motto was: “Speak softly and hit hard,” according to a 1949 Associated Press report.

In 1925 and 1926, As a Detroit Recorder’s Court judge, Murphy presided over the seminal trials involving a Black physician named Ossian Sweet who had faced charges in connection with the fatal shooting of Leon Breiner, a white man who had trespassed on Sweet’s property in a hostile fashion. Breiner and others had protested Sweet’s purchase of a home in an all-white Detroit neighborhood. The first trial in 1925 ended in a hung jury. In the second trial the following year, Sweet, his brother, Henry Sweet, and other family and friends were acquitted of the charges.

During the Great Depression, Murphy was elected Michigan governor on Nov. 3, 1936. The Democrat served a two-year term and sought to institute many of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives.

In 1939, Roosevelt appointed Murphy as U.S. attorney general. During his short tenure there, Murphy established a civil liberties unit in the criminal division of the Department of Justice. It was designed to centralize enforcement responsibility for the Bill of Rights and civil rights statutes.

He was later nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by Roosevelt in 1940. From that seat, Murphy once stated: “Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion all have a double aspect — freedom of thought and freedom of action.”

The Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit is named in his honor.

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