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Of independent mind in law and Md. politics

The Baltimore Sun

It's a Thursday afternoon and William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., as is often the case, seems to be doing 10 things at once.

The phone rings. And he's spouting off about Mayor Martin O'Malley's response to a radio ad in which Murphy is featured, accusing the Baltimore Police Department of unlawfully arresting thousands of black residents. Murphy paces.

"Did you hear what O'Malley said today?" he booms incredulously into the phone. "He said that Governor Ehrlich was lying about this! He didn't say disagreeing. He said lying!"

Fiery as ever, Murphy, 63, is a force to be reckoned with in courtrooms and legal circles, and has earned a reputation as being one of the more experienced and high-profile black lawyers in the nation.

He is also a political operative, a man whose blessing or curse holds considerable sway in Maryland circles. And the Democrat has thrown his support behind the re-election effort of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's senatorial bid, disappointing some but surprising none. Murphy, after all, is a political enigma.

"He's always been really independent," says former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, now dean of the Howard Law School. "He's not a guy that you can predict where he's going to land on political matters."

Or as his brother, Arthur W. Murphy, a Democratic strategist puts it: "Billy marches to a different drummer. But he marches so well."

On this day, the salty-tongued attorney is pontificating on topics that include jazz (he plays drums in a band), the war on drugs and the logic behind his support of two Republican candidates, despite his family's long-standing Democratic roots.

Billy Murphy is a talker. And he has an answer for everything.

"It's not the man, it's the plan," he says, feet casually propped up on his desk in his plush Mount Vernon law office.

Murphy, sporting his trademark ponytail and a dark pinstriped suit, pink shirt and tie, is surrounded by pictures of Muhammad Ali whispering in his ear and Don King grasping his hand after he won an acquittal for the boxing promoter on federal wire fraud charges in 1998.

A cluttered mantel is filled with awards and pictures of heavyweights as varied as first lady Kendel S. Ehrlich, former Rep. and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the late legendary attorney Johnnie Cochran.

Murphy is in the spotlight this campaign season with Ehrlich ads attacking O'Malley's management of the Police Department. He inspired further political fury a day later when he compared the tactics of Baltimore police with those of the Nazis.

"Billy is like an Eveready battery," says King, a friend and client. "Takes a lickin' but keeps on tickin'."

In his office, he is continually in motion, answering his phone, signing a check, accepting a package, and declaring his commitment to being a Democrat. Yes, Murphy is a Democrat. Always has been, always will be.

"I will never be a Republican," he says. "I will never support a George Bush. I would have never supported a Ronald Reagan or a Clarence Thomas or any of the things that they stand for philosophically.

"I base my decisions on what I view to be the best interests of black people and women," he adds, citing Ehrlich's appointments, pardons and commercial anti-discrimination bill as evidence of the governor's support for the African-American community.

"I don't have permanent political friends or permanent political enemies," says Murphy. "I have permanent political positions."

Blazing trails

Some talk about Murphy's rise in Shakespearean terms. In the past, he was always ready to buck convention, whether it was leading a silent revolt against singing "Old Black Joe" in middle school, joining anti-war demonstrations or defending Black Panther members. Now, some say, he has morphed into the very antithesis of that - a white-gloved corporate lawyer representing Fortune 500 companies and living the high life.

"Billy was a Democrat. He had no Republican in him," says Anton J.S. Keating, a Baltimore defense attorney and former candidate for city state's attorney who was a classmate at the University of Maryland Law School. "William H. Murphy Jr. is a Republican. He is the establishment."

Or perhaps, some say, Murphy reflects a new class of African-Americans whose politics are slowly shifting.

"Billy came out of that world of civil rights, and a lot of angry nationalist feelings came out of that period," says Marc Steiner, a WYPR talk show host who helped run Murphy's unsuccessful 1983 campaign for mayor. "And I think that Billy's motivations are fueled by the way he looks at the black world and the white world, and by his new wealth and corporate wealth and who he's involved with. I think that's changing a lot of African-Americans in terms of Democratic [versus] Republican politics."

Son of the late William H. Murphy Sr., a Baltimore district court judge, and Madeline Wheeler Murphy, a well-known activist, Murphy grew up the eldest of five children in Cherry Hill.

He was a trailblazer even then, one of the few blacks everywhere he went - Polytechnic Institute for high school, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (he entered at age 17 without graduating from high school and earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering) and the University of Maryland School of Law.

His was a family in which politics infused every aspect of life.

"I remember him as a kid. He was always running around down at the Board of Elections," says Gene M. Raynor, the former city elections director. "He and his brother were raised down there."

Everyone in Baltimore legal and political circles seems to have a Billy Murphy story.

Friends and detractors alike describe him as brilliant and opinionated, a tenacious litigator with folksy flair. Murphy speaks as passionately as the most charismatic of politicians and pastors, with a down-home, street-savvy streak.

While other attorneys scramble or stroll, Murphy struts, whether he's behind by five minutes or 30 (though he claims his penchant for tardiness, which even spurred one judge to label a minute "a Murphy," is no longer).

Prominent Baltimore defense attorney Kenneth W. Ravenell characterizes Murphy's style as "masterful."

"His knowledge of the law is unsurpassed," says Ravenell. "His skill in the courtroom is off the charts. He commands the courtroom. He's able to adjust to juries anywhere and everywhere. It can be before a jury in New York for Don King, a jury in New Orleans or a jury in Baltimore."

Recently retired Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan says Murphy's cross-examination of a city school employee two years ago in a pro bono case was second to none. "He participated in the education suit at the last minute, and I have never seen a cross-examination that was any better," Kaplan recalls.

An eventful career

Murphy shoulders a checkered and accomplished history. He was elected to the Circuit Court in 1980, calling his 2 1/2 years as a judge as "largely uneventful," and characterized by his reluctance to give offenders long sentences.

In 1983, he stepped down from his 15-year term as a judge to do the unthinkable - run against the popular incumbent mayor, William Donald Schaefer, an election he lost by a landslide. He has never run for office again.

Before and after his time on the bench, Murphy reigned as perhaps the premier defense attorney in the city, representing many of the most notorious drug dealers and alleged killers, and suing the Police Department in numerous brutality cases.

His own brushes with the law include a 1993 wife-beating charge that was put on the inactive docket and a disorderly conduct charge for disrupting an Anne Arundel District Court commissioner's office (he was acquitted in 1998).

Over the past decade, Murphy has built a reputation for civil litigation with his eight-person law firm, William H. Murphy Jr. & Associates. The firm has represented Fortune 500 companies and won multimillion-dollar awards, in addition to taking on malpractice and personal injury cases. He's even sued and defended the same company, Ernst & Young.

The cases take him and his associates - among them his son, Hassan - all over the world, including to London for the King case, Belgium for Johnson & Johnson, and dozens of states. About 25 percent are litigated in Maryland. Murphy was part of a legal team that won a $276 million verdict for Steel Software in a lawsuit against First Union Bank in 2002.

He has successfully defended Microsoft Corp. in multimillion-dollar discrimination cases. "I thought the fact that Bill Gates ran a shop that discriminated against blacks was errant nonsense," he quips.

And he is now representing H&R; Block in a $52 million contract suit against HSBC.

Perhaps his most high-profile legal victory was his representation of King in a wire fraud case before a federal jury in New York.

"Everybody expected Don to lose," says Murphy. "That opened the door for me nationally."

Even as he has retreated into a less public form of practicing the law, Murphy has continued to make headlines. Last year he was in the spotlight when retiring Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., a Democrat, alleged that the Maryland Stadium Authority exceeded its authority when it awarded Murphy's firm a no-bid contract worth more than $100,000.

Still having fun

Murphy insists that his core ideals haven't changed a bit. He has quietly undertaken hundreds of pro bono cases, started scholarship funds at law schools and mentored young lawyers. And then there's his corporate success.

"Having access to corporate America on this level is unprecedented," he says. "It's something that we, as black lawyers, have always wanted to do."

Though approaching retirement age, Murphy laughs at the notion. In fact, he won't rule out a future run for office.

"Never say never," he says, with a sly smile.

"I'm gonna die with my boots on," he adds. "I'm having too much fun to retire."

The phone rings again. It's a reporter. He stands and starts pacing.

And off he goes.

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