Legal History Conference

U.S. District Court Judge Harold L. Murphy (right) reflects on his nearly 40 years on the bench in Rome during a Georgia Legal History workshop in Rome on Friday, March 5, 2016. Rome attorney Frank Beacham (left) was a former clerk for Judge Murphy and served as moderator for the discussion of Murphy's career. (Doug Walker, RN-T)

U.S. District Court Judge Harold L. Murphy said he originally wanted to be an FBI agent, yet he has served on the federal bench in Rome for nearly four decades.

The longtime judge from Haral­son County told attorneys attending a Georgia Legal Services workshop in Rome on Friday that dreams of the FBI motivated him to attend law school.

“I read that FBI agents made $5,000 a year. I thought that was just great,” said Murphy, who will hit the 40-year mark in 2017. “That’s why I decided I’d like to go to law school. You had to be a lawyer or a CPA to be an FBI agent at that time.”

Murphy attended the University of Georgia Law School, graduating in 1949. His class included his cousin Tom Murphy, who went on to become speaker of the Georgia House of Rep­resentatives; Carl Sanders, who went on to become governor of Georgia; Marvin Shoob, who also became a federal court judge; and Roman Oscar Smith.

“Oscar was a leader of that class, yes, academically. That may surprise some of you,” Murphy said with his trademark laugh.

The judge said he returned to start his practice of the law in Haralson County.

“You couldn’t get a job (with a major Atlanta firm) unless your father owned a bank or was a director of an insurance company,” Murphy said. “I could not have practiced law if I hadn’t lived with my family. When you’re 22 years old people don’t need you very much as a lawyer. They want somebody that knows what they’re doing,” Murphy said.

Murphy recalled making $650 his first year in practice. “We got a dollar for drawing a deed, $15 for drawing a will, $65 for handling a divorce,” Murphy said.

He told the group of attorneys from all over North Georgia that one of the biggest changes he’s seen over his career was when lawyers started charging by the hour.

“Hourly billing has been a wonderful thing for lawyers,” he quipped.

Murphy was appointed by then Gov. Jimmy Carter to a judgeship in the Tallapoosa Super Court Circuit in 1971 and was then appointed by President Carter in 1977 to a seat on the federal bench. Murphy recalled being sworn in on a Thursday and presiding over his first case in Rome the following Monday.

Questioned by Rome attorney Frank Beacham, Murphy recalled a couple of the major cases he presided over, including the Michael Thevis racketeering trial and the Alabama college and university desegregation case.

Thevis, a self-proclaimed pornography king, was tried over a period of nine weeks in front of Judge Murphy in the fall of 1979.

“It was a very interesting case with a bunch of flamboyant lawyers,” Murphy said. He recalled that Bobby Lee Cook, Ed Garland, Ralph Hill and Austin Katz were among the Thevis defense team. Thevis was convicted of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, in part for conspiring to murder a witness to keep him from testifying at trial.

Murphy expressed some great satisfaction with the Alabama desegregation case.

In December 1991, Murphy issued a 1,000-plus-page order giving more funding to tradionally black universities, particularly Alabama State and Alabama A&M.

Murphy said Alabama State become a five-star research university in the decades since his order. “It had the quality of a junior college, even though it was a four-year college when the case first started,” Murphy said.

“Never did I intend to be a judge. Things change during your career that cause you to change your focus,” Murphy said. “It’s really a privilege to lead a judicial office and enforcement of the Constitution of the United States every day.”