Legal Ethics

Judge who caused 'national spectacle' by challenging public defender to fistfight loses his job

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Rejecting a recommended 120-day suspension and $50,000 fine for a Florida judge who challenged a public defender to a fistfight last year, the state supreme court on Thursday removed him from office.

Calling the June 2014 incident in Brevard County Judge John Murphy’s courtroom a “national spectacle” that was “fundamentally inconsistent with the responsibilities of judicial office,” the Florida Supreme Court said removal was the appropriate sanction, reports the Orlando Sentinel.

Part of the incident was captured on a courtroom security video before the two men exited the courtroom. At that point, a struggle could be heard. Some earlier news links to the video appear to be broken, but it can still be found on YouTube.

“Judge Murphy used profanity in an open courtroom and threatened violence against an attorney appearing before him. This is the sort of egregious conduct that erodes the public’s confidence,” the court said in its written opinion (PDF). “Given the clear erosion of public confidence in the judiciary caused by his misconduct, removal is an appropriate sanction.”

Murphy, a 29-year U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, recently revealed that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He helped establish a Brevard County veterans court for service members.

Initially suspended with pay while he took a leave of absence and underwent counseling, he was suspended without pay earlier this year.

“You know if I had a rock, I would throw it at you right now,” Murphy says at one point during the videotaped portion of his June 2, 2014 dispute with assistant public defender Andrew Weinstock while Murphy was on the bench hearing cases. “Stop pissing me off. Just sit down. I’ll take care of this. I don’t need your help. Sit down.”

Weinstock remains standing. “You know what? I’m the public defender,” he replies. “I have a right to be here, and I have a right to stand and represent my clients.”

The judge responds: “I said sit down. If you want to fight, let’s go out back, and I’ll just beat your ass.”

Weinstock can then be seen walking out of the frame, apparently headed to the hallway, where the judge, exiting off-camera, reportedly joined him. He said he sought, without success, to have the judge arrested after Murphy struck him. Later, Weinstock quit his job over the incident, saying that he felt his boss should have opposed Murphy’s return to the bench.

Both Weinstock and a court deputy who followed the two into the hallway said they did not expect a physical confrontation but simply a discussion, despite Murphy’s videotaped statements in the courtroom, the supreme court notes in Thursday’s opinion. However, a scuffle did ensue, although accounts differed as to whether Weinstock and the judge landed blows. (Each man pointed the finger at the other, but the deputy and another nearby court officer who arrived in response to shouts and sounds of a struggle said they didn’t see anyone hit.)

Following news of Murphy’s removal, Chief Judge John Galluzzo of Brevard County said in a written statement that court services would not be interrupted and praised Murphy for his work, reports Florida Today.

“I would like to wish Judge Murphy success in his future endeavors,” Galluzzo wrote. “As a county court judge he worked tirelessly and served our courts with distinction before and after that unfortunate day. We will remember him for the countless positive contributions he made during his years on the bench and he will be missed.”

Related coverage: “After judge’s fistfight with public defender was broken up, he returned to the bench, says report”

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