By: Ashley Rader
Smithville Herald – February 16, 2006
Smithville Municipal Court Judge J. Michael Murphy has seen an average of 300 defendants each court night more than 17 years, and he is still passionate about giving the best judgments he can.
Murphy, who has been practicing law since 1971, has served on both sides of the criminal fence, including acting as an assistant prosecutor of Clay County and working as a defense attorney. He lives in Kansas City with his wife, Mary Helen. They have four children.
But his highest honor has been serving as the judge in Smithville since December 1988.
“It is the ultimate achievement for a lawyer to become a judge,” he said. “It is an incredible honor for me to do this for so long in Smithville.”
Murphy, who owns his own law practice with his two sons in Liberty, said he had seen many changes in the Smithville court system during his tenure.
“I started being a judge in a small room at the old City Hall,” he said. “We held court night every month, but we didn’t hold trials but every three months. Of course, as the city grew we had to hold a trial night each month, and we grew to two court nights nearly every month of the year.”
The Smithville Municipal Court, a division of the Clay County Circuit Court, is held an average of 22 nights a year in the council chambers at City Hall with only one court night in December and January. The majority of the cases are handled by attorneys who pled guilty or have their clients’ charges reduced, Murphy said.
As judge, Murphy sees certain offenses, such as driving while intoxicated and marijuana possession that will get the offender a stern lecture from him.
“I find DWI charges, marijuana and possession of marijuana citations extremely offensive,” he said. “I always tell these kids, even though sometimes they are 29 or 30 years old, that they have no right to be out smoking dope while our soldiers are having their legs blown off in Iraq.” Additionally, Murphy takes a tough stance on probation violations.
“I don’t like to have to give jail time in municipal court because it is so expensive for the city, but I guarantee you that if you violate your probation, you will go to jail,” he said.
Murphy said he hoped his stern approach to all violations could help turn an offender’s life around.
“Most often when we have younger citizens in court, it is the first time they have been in trouble,” he said. “I hope to get a hold of them and make them not want to come back to my court. Once someone has been through the system a number of times, they begin to get comfortable, and it isn’t as big of a deal to them as it should be.”
“If the proof fails, then I have no problem ruling in favor of the defendant,” he said. “The great thing about that is that the Smithville police officers do not take it personally. They understand what I have to look at to have a guilty verdict. They are great sports about it.”
Smithville Police Department Lt. Mike Lewark said he respected Murphy’s judicial decisions.
“He is just an incredible judge,” he said. “He backs the officers, but at the same time we know that if we make a mistake or don’t have all the evidence we need, he will side with the defendant.”
Murphy said he couldn’t get through a court night without the help of full-time city court clerk Jeanette Chastain. As court clerk Chastain’s duties include working closely between the Police department and the court system, processing all guilty and reduced pleas, and helping the judge with docket information and other duties on court nights.
“She is the most critical part of the system in Smithville,” he said. “Her bookkeeping is impeccable, and I could never dream of doing it without her.”
Murphy has enjoyed working in Smithville the past 17 years, he said, because of the nature of the community.
“I don’t think many judges can boast that they have never been pressured by city staff or elected officials about anything,” he said. “That is unique to Smithville. The city respects what I do and lets me do it. That is very rare.”
The city prosecutor and a prominent defense attorney gave Murphy high ratings as well.
“He is an excellent and fair judge,” Smithville Prosecutor Katee Shepherd Porter said. “He is a very good judge to work with.” James P. Deffet, who handles a great deal of traffic-related offenses in Smithville, also said he enjoyed working with Murphy.
“You can’t get much better than Judge Murphy,” he said. “He is good to my clients and does the right thing.”
Murphy said he planned to continue as judge in Smithville for as long as he could.
“I want to keep doing what I am doing,” he said. “I really enjoy Smithville and all the people I work with there. I hope they continue to have me.”