Walter Mitty in Robes?

Associates say 14th Court of Appeals Chief Justice Paul Clarence Murphy III is, in person, about as courteous and accommodating an Irish gentleman as one could ever hope to meet. But since Governor George Bush elevated him from being just a regular jurist on the court in 1995, a racier, more dominating side of his personality has emerged, much to his colleagues' chagrin.

The green-eyed, slightly paunchy Murphy is a former symphony musician who plays a mean upright bass at St. Patrick's Day parties, but some of his co-workers don't like the rhythm he's been imposing on court operations. Two years ago, he weathered a legal revolt by five of his eight justices who had the nerve to demand that management of the 14th Court be conducted democratically, with their input.

Now the 62-year-old chief justice has several of his colleagues steaming again, after he hired a secretary to work for three of the judges without consulting them. The new hire, claims a court source, is the wife of a friend of Murphy's and a former English teacher with little secretarial experience.

A court source says the hiring of Hale provoked the ire of some judges because she was not interviewed for the job or introduced to her future employers, her salary is higher than her predecessor's and there are those nagging questions about her secretarial skills. Also, the pay difference has miffed other secretaries for the court.

Murphy's family life made the news, too, when he filed a terroristic-threat charge against his wife, 47-year-old Rita Seelen Murphy, in December. She allegedly threatened to kill him during a pre-Christmas conversation at their home. Murphy did not tell investigators whether the issue of input into household management had anything to do with their disagreement. In any case, passions apparently cooled in one facet of the relationship and warmed in another, because Murphy told lawmen there had been a reconciliation, and he dropped the charge last week.

The district attorney's office has been reluctant in the past to withdraw such charges by fearful wives who might later be intimidated by their husbands. But Assistant District Attorney Chuck Noll told the Chronicle that the chief justice is not your typical battered spouse.

"We feel like he can take care of himself and there is no need for the state to step in and protect him," deadpanned Noll. He did not note that the state may need to protect Murphy now more than ever -- from some of his co-workers rather than his threat-spouting spouse.

"You'd think that with the problems Paul has had, personal and political, recently, he would pull in his horns," says another appellate judge. As for the hiring of a secretary without consulting the judges, this jurist adds, "That's a rude thing to do, isn't it?"

Murphy's troubles started when he succeeded the late chief justice Curtiss Brown, who held the post for decades and made most management decisions without angering fellow justices. For Murphy, a Republican sweep brought in a batch of new judges. They demanded roles both in deciding what appeals are subject to a rehearing and in staff hiring, firing and promotions. Justices Leslie Brock Yates, John S. Anderson, J. Harvey Hudson, Wanda McKee Fowler and Richard Edelman filed a suit accusing Murphy of exceeding his authority.

The other Houston-based state appeals panel, the First Court of Appeals, is headed by Chief Justice Michael Schneider. He allows other judges to participate in making decisions about personnel matters and which rulings will be reconsidered by the justices.

The 14th Court dissidents charge that Murphy exercised sole authority over the 30-member staff of briefing attorneys and support personnel. While Murphy created a personnel committee in response to the complaints, he refused to allow the other judges any role in hiring or firing their court employees.

The justices tried to negotiate a compromise with the chief justice. Murphy refused, saying he would consider giving his colleagues input in hiring but would not allow votes on personnel matters. In response to the suit, Murphy hired top-gun litigator Joe Jamail for a nominal fee, and the Texas Supreme Court swatted down the challenge. The high court ruled that Murphy had not exceeded his authority, because previous chief justices of the 14th Court had pretty much run the show without formal rules or procedures.

Murphy, longtime court observers agree, is just carrying on the way predecessor Brown did for decades. During that time the same group of judges remained on the court, creating an amicable club that Brown managed without complaint.

The problem is that times -- and court personalities -- have changed over the years, says a veteran appeals attorney. "There was no doubt that Judge Brown was the dictator, and he had the crown, and everyone knew whose head the crown was on, and no one gave a crap about the administrative stuff," says this source. "Then you got seven new judges simultaneously, none of whom had ever been associated with an appellate court. Murphy was like, 'I've moved up and now I'm Curtiss,' and they're like, 'Let's vote on everything!' Both sides need to come a little bit together."

This source -- sympathetic to Murphy -- says his attempt to focus his colleagues on legal work rather than on management makes sense because the 14th Court has not been stellar in processing cases.

"Quite frankly that court has been way behind in recent years in getting their cases out, and Murphy thinks the judges need to spend more time writing and researching than micromanaging," the source says.

It's uncertain what the judges smarting under Murphy's law can do now, other than emulate his wife and make the best of the situation. There were reports that the dissidents could soon convene and try to sidestep Murphy by adopting their own operating rules. But they may not have to put up with the chief justice much longer, says a Republican source.

The word is out that Murphy would like to return to private life with a fat pension and will retire after the end of the legislative session, says this source. That way, Governor Bush could name a new chief justice without having to wade through Senate confirmation hearings this session.

If Murphy does decide to retire, his colleagues will find out if a successor will share some of the power -- or whether the title of chief justice also confers an automatic personality change.

-- Tim Fleck

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