Frank Murphy Hall of Justice

1441 Saint Antoine Street near the intersection of Saint Antoine and Gratiot Avenue


The booming economic years after World War II were interesting ones for the city of Detroit.  When the Allies defeated the Germans and Japanese in 1945, there was much vacant land in northwest Detroit. Much of that land had been plotted in the 1920s but the Depression and the War stopped almost all new construction.  Detroit residents had saved a great deal during the war and many wanted to buy a new home. Many were living in rapidly-aging old workingmen’s homes in Detroit.   Quickly, thousands of small homes were constructed in the city.  Indeed, until about 1950, the number of new homes built in the city exceeded the number built in the Detroit suburbs.  However, by the mid-1950s, it became apparently that the suburbs were growing more rapidly than the city.  Most all of the several thousand factories in Detroit prospered in the years immediately after World War II as consumers bought the cars that they did not purchase during the Depression or the War.  Also, by the mid-1950s, city planners knew that the city’s factories were old, costly to maintain and had only a short run future.  The city developed—but never carried out—numerous plans to raze substantial sections of Detroit for use as light manufacturing centers.  They hoped to retain manufacturing employment in the city, hopes that were never fulfilled. Planners were certainly hard at work thinking about the future of Detroit.

Tax revenues boomed in the city for some years after World War II and the city had the funding to build large new administrative buildings.  The Murphy Hall of Justice was one of the last such projects.  I think there was much uncertainty about what to do to renovate the east side area near downtown.  At the end of World War II, it was filled with low-rise buildings and many dilapidated structures from the late Nineteenth Century. Planners, at one point, called for tearing down the buildings in what is now Greektown and using that area for surface parking.  Property owners protested, blocked the city’s efforts and gradually carved out an entertainment-recreation zone that continues to prosper.  However, some of the Nineteenth Century low-rise buildings were torn down to make room for new buildings including the Murphy Hall of Justice.  Those along Hastings Street were razed for the Chrysler Expressway.

When this building was designed, a new architectural style was briefly popular.  The idea was to construct a building that would convey simple, modern, clean lines, perhaps suggesting up-to-date efficiency.  Perhaps the best example of this style is Coleman Young City County office building at the corner of Jefferson and Woodward.  The architects for this building borrowed some of those ideas. 

The City of Detroit administered and paid for its own courts.  These were known as Detroit Recorders Court.  The rest of the state had courts supported by the government in Lansing.  Frank Murphy was the most famous Recorder’s Court judge. 
This building honors him.

Murphy was, arguably, the most important political and judicial figures to come from Detroit.  His parents, Irish immigrants, lived in Harbor Springs, Michigan where Frank Murphy was born in April, 1890.  His father practiced law. Murphy enrolled at the University of Michigan and earned a Bachelor’s degree in 1912 and a law degree two years later.  He then continued his legal studies in London and at Trinity College in Dublin.  After serving in World War I, Murphy opened a law office in Detroit and taught at the University Of Detroit Law School.  From 1919 until 1922, he was an Assistant Federal District Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.  In that role, he opened the first Civil Rights Section anywhere in the federal judiciary.

In 1920, Murphy ran for the office of Recorder’s Court judge in Detroit but he lost that election.  The Republicans swept throughout the nation that year as the voters put Warren Harding in the White House and his long coat tails carried Republicans to office most places they were on the ballot.  Murphy ran again for Recorder’s Court judge in 1923, won and served for seven years.  In that capacity, he presided over the most important and contentious Civil Rights trial of the decade.  Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black physician, purchased a home at the corner of Garland and Charlevoix on Detroit’s east side in 1925.  When he moved into his residence, his home was surrounded by a menacing crowd that the police failed disperse.  At one point, Dr. Sweet felt threatened and feared that his home would be destroyed killing all occupants.  Someone in his home shot into the hostile crowd killing one person and wounding another.  Police officers who were standing outside immediately arrested all occupants of Dr. Sweet’s residence.  They were charged with first degree murder.

The first trial in Recorder’s Court ended in a hung jury.  In the retrial, Dr. Sweet’s brother, Henry Sweet, stipulated to being the shooter.  Clarence Darrow defended Dr. Sweet and others in the home.  Darrow argued that a black person had the same rights as any white person to defend his home if threatened by a raging crowd, even if his home were in a white neighborhood.   The jury acquitted Dr. Sweet and the prosecution decided to drop charges against all other defendants. Judge Frank Murphy was praised for his excellence supervision of the litigation.  The trial was conducted at a time when Michigan support for the Ku Klux Klan was at a peak

In the fall of 1930, Frank Murphy won a special election for the mayor’s office in Detroit defeating Charles Bowles.  Bowles, similar to Kwame Kilpatrick, was removed from office while serving his term.  In 1925, Charles Bowles ran as the Ku Klux Klan candidate for mayor and probably won.  However, he was a write-in candidate.  The Republicans and Democrats did not want a Klan man in the mayor’s office.  They successfully persuaded a local judge to rule that if a voter did not write the exact name Charles Bowles with the correct spelling, the vote should not be counted.  Bowles lost about 15,000 votes with that judicial ruling costing him the mayor’s office.  He came back to win the mayor’s office in 1929 election.  However, shortly after taking office his critics argued that he was cooperating with the criminals, especially bootleggers, by having the police call off many of their enforcement activities.  Signatures were gathered for his recall less than six month after he took office.   Another election was held and Bowles lost to Frank Murphy in a special election in fall, 1930.

During his term as mayor, Frank Murphy faced the challenges of the Depression.  While there are few accurate statistics, unemployment in Detroit probably rose well about 25 percent.  Unemployed men would regularly gather in Grand Circus Park where a variety of speakers encouraged an end to capitalism and a radical restructuring of economic systems.  In Detroit, as in a few other cities, the Communist Party was active in promoting fundamental changes.  They also encouraged Hunger Marches while portraying capitalists such as Henry Ford as very rich men who continued to exploit workers during the Depression.  Many conservatives demanded a forceful crackdown on the protestors who were portrayed as intent upon destroying this democratic nation and the capitalistic system.  Mayor Murphy was seen as a supporter of the protesters and viewed as doing a good job during one of Detroit’s more challenging decades.  He was also credited with providing as much support as he could for the city’s impoverished residence, much as Mayor Pingree had done in the previous major recession.  Murphy encouraged Detroit residents to grow their own food.  One of the iconic symbols of the Depression is the picture of a well-dressed man selling apples on a street corner.  This reflected Mayor Murphy’s innovations since he worked out an arrangement whereby unemployment men could buy apples from wholesalers for 2 cents and sell them for 5 cents.

After serving a mayor for four years, Murphy accepted an appointment from President Roosevelt to be the Governor General of the Philippine colony in 1933.  Two years, later Congress enacted the legislation that would give those islands their freedom in 1946.  The role of Governor General was changed to a new appointment, High Commissioner of the Philippines.  Roosevelt also appointed Frank Murphy to that position and he served in Manila from 1935 to 1936 when he returned to Michigan and successfully campaigned to become governor.

Very shortly after he took office in Lansing, Governor Murphy was confronted by the issue of the sit-down strikes, especially the one at the Chevrolet plant in Flint.  It had come to symbolize for the entire nation worker-capitalist strife.   Congress passed the Wagner Act in 1935 that required firms to recognize and bargain with legitimately constituted unions.  Most employers said this was an unconstitutional law, argued that the Constitution gave them a right to specify all the conditions of employment and refused to recognize any union.  They strongly argued that the Constitution gave owners property rights that permitted them to exclude unions.   In 1937, the economy turned a corner and, for the first time in eight years, auto sales began to increase.  Seeing an opportunity to generate profit for the first time since the 1920s, auto firms speeded up their production lines and demanded much more work from assembly line personnel.  The nascent United Auto Workers, however, knew that the Wagner Act gave them the power to demand that management recognize and then bargain with a union.  This set the stage for sit-down strikes.  Workers would go to their shops or stores, act peacefully but perform no work and remain for days on end while their friends brought them the food and blankets they needed.  Management immediately called for the police to arrest the sit-down workers as trespassers.   Where there were very few sit-down strikers, the police could easily march into a shop or retail trade establishment, remove the workers and arrest them.  In most cases, owners primarily wanted the sit-down strikers removed so that they could hire substitutes.

The auto plants, however, were a different issue.  Thousands of workers were sitting down, far more than the number of police.  Flint became a nation center for sit-down strikes as the UAW challenged GM.  After sitting in for some days, GM won an order from a local judge requiring the Governor Murphy send in state troopers to remove the striking workers.  Murphy questioned whether he should obey the order demanding that he evict the striking workers.  On the one hand, workers and the families and friends cast many more votes than factory owners.  In addition, Murphy feared that there would be violence, perhaps a great deal of bloody violence, if his state police were sent into plants to evict and arrest thousands of workers.  He had good reason for concern since he might be asking state troopers to fire upon their fathers, brothers and sons who were sitting in at the Flint GM plant.

In a quandary about what to do, Governor Murphy called his friend, John L. Lewis, the legendary and highly successful leader of the United Mine Workers.  Lewis listed to Murphy and then told him that he had a duty to send in state troopers to remove the sit-in strikers.  However, Lewis asked that Murphy delay for one day so that he, Lewis, could come to Flint.  Lewis told Murphy that when he got to Flint, he would go to the biggest window on the highest floor of the GM factory, stand in that window and bear his chest.  When he got to that site, Lewis told Murphy, that he should then order the state troopers to start firing at the sit-down strikers.  Lewis went on to say that as his body fell to the pavement below, Murphy would remember his grandfather in Ireland.  Murphy’s grandfather had been killed by the British for promoting Irish independence.  As the story goes, Murphy hung up his phone, kept his troopers out of Flint and suffered no penalties.  GM quickly realized that they were overwhelmed by the power of the union and that elected officials did not have the personnel or the will to evict sit-down strikers.   Frank Murphy agreed to mediate a settlement and management quickly complied with the Wagner Act and recognized the UAW as a bargaining agent for their workers.

Frank Murphy served only two years in Lansing.  He ran for reelection in November, 1938 but was defeated by the Republican candidate, Frank Fitzgerald, who had held the office before Murphy.  In 1938, President Roosevelt nominated Murphy to serve as the Attorney General of the United States.  He was approved by the Senate and held that office for about two years.  He established the first office in the Department of Justice with an explicit mission to enforce the Bill of Rights and civil rights laws, the Civil Liberties Section of the Criminal Division.

Early in 1940, President Roosevelt nominated Frank Murphy to serve on the Supreme Court.  He held that appointment until his death. However, from time to time when his schedule permitted, Murphy served as an infantry instructor at Fort Benning.  On the court, Murphy developed an unusual reputation for his sympathy for aliens, racial minorities, criminals, dissenters and some war resisters.  Then, as now, there was conflict between those who thought that the letter of the law should be followed even if the outcome seemed unfair and those who thought that the spirit of the law and an overall sense of justice should guide their decisions.  Rather than focusing upon the exact law as written, Justice Murphy sought to render Solomon-like decisions that would bring about fairness.  Murphy was frequently criticized for not being what we would call a strict constitutionalist.  Justice Frankfurter opposed most of Murphy views, nicknamed him “The Saint,” and argued that Murphy reached decisions using his heart not his head.

Perhaps, the most famous opinion of Justice Murphy was his dissent in the famous Koromatsu litigation.  On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order #9066.  It allowed the military to enforce a curfew against all Japanese-Americans living in the West Coast states.  It also gave the military the authority to exclude Japanese-Americans from contact with others and, if necessary, to intern them in camps for the duration of World War II.  The military started with curfews but, by the summer of 1942, ordered all persons of Japanese descent in California, Oregon and Washington to report for incarceration.  Eventually 110,000 were moved into camps. This was done without any judicial proceedings.  Since immigration from Japan had been prohibited for almost fifty years, almost all of the incarcerated with citizens, many of them second generation citizens.

Fred Korematsu—a Japanese American—failed to surrender for interment.  He was arrested and convicted of violating Executive Order #9066.  He litigated the matter and, on December 18, 1944, the Supreme Court issued their decision.  It was a 6 to 3 decision upholding the right of the government to suspect the writ of habeas corpus during World War II.  Justice Murphy strongly dissented and, for the first time in a Supreme Court decision, used the term racism.  He contended that the Japanese were imprisoned, not because of any crime they committed or any strong evidence that they would support the enemy but, rather singularly because of their race.  The decision of the Court in Korematsu still stands but Murphy’s dissent may be its most memorable component.  Korematsu lived long enough to have his conviction overturned.  Late in the war, Murphy took the lead in establishing a national committee that sought to protect the rights of Jews and to bring attention to what the National Socialists had done to Germany’s Jewish citizens.

Murphy died of a heart attack in Detroit at age 59. 

The City of Detroit faced financial difficulties throughout the latter decades of the last century.  The Michigan State legislature enacted a bill that transformed Detroit’s Recorders Court into the Third Circuit of the Circuit Court of the State of Michigan.  The obligations of the justices who heard cases in the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice were not fundamentally changed but the court system was transferred from city to statement management.

Architect: Eberle M. Smith and Associates
Architectural Style:  It has been called brutal, but it represent a modern style that was very briefly popular.
Date of construction: 1968
Use in 2009:  Home of the Third Judicial District Circuit Court of the State of Michigan – Criminal Division
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph:  Ren Farley; August, 2009
Description prepared: December, 2012


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