Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., former chief judge of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, dies

Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr.  was known as a celebrated criminal defense attorney.

Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., former chief judge of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals who ended his judicial career in 2011 as a judge on the state Court of Appeals, died of cancer Wednesday at Stella Maris Hospice. The Cockeysville resident was 78.

“No one I’ve ever known was smarter than Joe Murphy,” said retired Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge John F. Fader II, who used to share chambers. “As a Circuit Court judge, Court of Special Appeals judge and Court of Appeals judge, he was diligent, attentive, compassionate and on every issue. He was a giant.


Joe Murphy was always there for everybody. ... No one took to people and understood them better than Joe.”

Chief Judge Matthew B. Fader of the state Court of Appeals said: “He was a fixture in the Maryland judiciary for many, many years. He was so widely respected, intelligent, and was devoted to the judiciary and the legal community He was dedicated to the law and doing the right thing, and had such joy going about his job.”


While he may have been a fixture in Maryland for decades, Judge Murphy never lost the Yankee accent that reflected his New England heritage.

“His passing creates a void that cannot be never be refilled,” Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge C. Carey Deeley Jr. said. “And the reason I say that is I think we’re all replaceable, but not Joe Murphy.”

“Joe was my boss in the State’s Attorney’s Office 50 years ago, and there was no greater teacher, mentor or judge of his generation in the State of Maryland,” said retired Baltimore County District Court Judge Robert J. Steinberg.

Richard M. Karceski, a criminal defense attorney, and Judge Murphy have been close friends for more than 50 years.

“Joe and I were barred the same day in 1969 and have been brothers at the bar for 54 years,” Mr. Karceski said. “From that day going forward, I’ve always been in Joe Murphy’s rearview mirror because he was one tough guy to catch up to. I call him a modern-day Sir Thomas More, a man for all seasons, who only did what was right. He knew how to call the balls and strikes and that’s Joe Murphy.”

Joseph Francis Murphy Jr., son of Joseph F. Murphy Sr., a railroader, and Marie Murphy, a bookkeeper, was born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. After the death of his father when he was 1 year old, Judge Murphy was raised by his mother and an aunt, Catherine Calt, a telephone operator.

When he was a junior at St. Bernard’s Central High School in Fitchburg, he met and fell in love with a fellow student, JoAnn Cechin, whom he married in 1966.

After graduating from St. Bernard’s, he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1965 from Boston College. The couple moved to Baltimore and he worked by day as an insurance adjuster for Crawford & Co. while at night attending the University of Maryland School of Law, from which he graduated in 1969.


Admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1969, Judge Murphy began his legal career as a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Bureau, and from 1970 to 1975, he was in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office as an assistant, and from 1975 to 1976, as deputy state’s attorney.

In 1976, Judge Murphy, who had a well-earned reputation as a celebrated criminal defense attorney who had “represented clients in many highly publicized criminal cases in the Baltimore area,” reported The Sun, joined Russell J. White and became a partner in the law firm of White & Murphy. He remained with the firm until 1984, when Gov. Harry R. Hughes appointed him to the Baltimore County Circuit Court.

“I was surprised and I was hopeful, but not confident that I’d get it,” Judge Murphy, who had a well-earned reputation as a celebrated criminal defense attorney, told The Sun at the time of his appointment.

In 1993, Judge Murphy was appointed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer to Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals and replaced Judge Roslyn Blake Bell, who had retired.

At the time in an interview with The Sun, Judge Murphy said he was looking forward to appellate court work.

“I’ve always enjoyed the research aspect of it and the writing — and trial judges don’t have time to do that,” he said. “In fairness to people, the trial judge must make a ruling and deliver an oral opinion, while the appellate court ... has time to research legal issues in depth and, hopefully, prepare a written opinion that will prove to be a valuable guide for trial lawyers and trial judges in future cases throughout the state.”


In 2007, Gov. Martin J. O’Malley appointed Judge Murphy to the state Court of Appeals, filling the vacancy of Judge Alan M. Wilner, who had reached the mandatory retirement age.

The Sun opined that it was Gov. O’Malley’s “first opportunity to make over the state’s highest court by choosing a jurist known for his depth of experience and moderate temperament.”

In 2011, when Judge Murphy was 67, he announced his retirement, and joined the Towson law firm of Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin & White, where his daughter, Erin Catherine Murphy, was an appellate lawyer.

“I’ve been on a long time. It’s time to make way for other people, and I would like to have a couple of extra years practicing law with my daughter,” he told The Sun.

During his time with the firm, Judge Murphy focused on establishing an alternative dispute resolution center. He also represented clients in federal courts and served as an adviser, strategist and consultant on state cases, and at the time, told The Sun he would not appear before state court judges, “to avoid any appearance of impropriety.”

In addition to his own work, he taught evidence classes at the University of Baltimore School of Law and trial practice at his law school alma mater. Beginning in 1987, he coordinated the training of new trial-level judges, headed a committee that advises the legislature on revisions to criminal laws and headed a committee that advised the Court of Appeals.


He also was the author of the “Maryland Evidence Handbook,” which is an indispensable tool for lawyers.

Barbara M. Schuler had been Judge Murphy’s secretary and administrative assistant for 25 years.

“We had became the Murphy-Barb team because we both shared a passion for the judiciary, which was both very important to us, and he was a judge’s judge,” Ms. Schuler said. “His door was always open to judges of the trial court and appellate courts, and he was always there to answer their questions.”

She described her boss as “easygoing” but “on occasion his Irish temper would surface,” she said with a laugh.

She recalled working on the third edition of his book.

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“It was the worst two weeks of my life. He was attached to my hip and dictated off the top of his head his book, which was just incredible,” Ms. Schuler said.


Judge Murphy was an avid Orioles and Colts fan. He was known to sip red wine and enjoyed eating at Vito’s Cafe in Cockeysville, Shotti’s Point in Locust Point and Sabatino’s in Little Italy, where he had a regular table that had a sign designating it as such.

“He really had no hobbies except going to Roman Catholic churches all over the city and putting money in the poor box,” said his daughter, a Federal Hill resident.

His wife, a career Baltimore County public school educator who also was the second woman to head the county school board, died in 2019.

A wake for Judge Murphy will be held from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and a Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5200 N. Charles St., at 1 p.m. Aug. 5.

Judge Murphy is survived by his daughter, who is chief counsel for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office; a grandson, Finley Ehman, a sophomore at St. Paul’s School for Boys; and a granddaughter, Ellery Ehman, a freshman at the University of South Carolina.