From The News Service of Florida:
In a rare move, the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday immediately suspended a Brevard County judge who interrupted court proceedings last year to scuffle with an assistant public defender after threatening to "beat your ass" in a video that went viral. The court also gave Judge John Murphy until Oct. 26 to show why he should not be permanently removed from the bench.
A panel of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, which oversees judges, recommended in May that Murphy be given a four-month suspension without pay and a $50,000 fine, but the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of punishments against judges and lawyers.
Tuesday's order is the latest example of an increasingly stern Supreme Court that is more frequently seeking stiffer penalties against errant judges. It is the first time in recent history that the justices have removed a sitting judge from the bench while an inquiry was still pending.
Murphy, elected in 2006, gave public defender Andrew Weinstock a tongue-lashing during proceedings captured on a Viera courtroom camera last June. "You know, if I had a rock, I would throw it at you right now. Stop pissing me off. Just sit down. I'll take care of this. I don't need your help. Sit down," Murphy admonished Weinstock.
When Weinstock persisted, Murphy issued a challenge in front of a crowded courtroom. "If you want to fight, let's go out back and I'll just beat your ass,'' Murphy told Weinstock.
After a scuffle in the hallway, a disheveled and panting Murphy returned to the bench and continued to handle cases of several of Weinstock's clients, who appeared before the judge without legal representation after the altercation.
"The dispute in Judge Murphy's courtroom and the hallway was more than inappropriate. It was aggressive and appalling," the hearing panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission found in May. Murphy's comments to Weinstock "were reprehensible," the panel wrote.
"The altercation between Weinstock and Judge Murphy created a remarkable national embarrassment for not only the judiciary of the state of Florida, but for its citizens as well," the six-member panel --- comprised of two judges, two lawyers and two lay persons --- found.
The panel recommended a 120-suspension without pay and a $50,000 fine and wanted Murphy to continue with mental health treatment "until successfully discharged."
The Judicial Qualifications Commission's counsel recommended against stripping Murphy from his post on the bench. Murphy, who took a month-long leave of absence and issued a public apology, asked the Supreme Court to uphold the commission's recommendations in a response filed in July.
The judge continued to dispute accusations about whether he actually hit Weinstock, who no longer works for the public defender's office. "…The question of whether Judge Murphy threw any punches on June 2, 2014, was and remains relevant," Murphy's lawyers wrote on July 10.
"The public narrative for almost a year had Judge Murphy initiating a fight with a punch. He understands that this behavior, regardless of punches, was egregious, but he believes that this (Supreme) Court and the public would view proof of a punch in a courtroom as unredeemable."
An investigation this year by The News Service of Florida found that the number of judges facing sanctions jumped in 2014 and that the high court is more often seeking harsher penalties than those originally proposed by the Judicial Qualifications Commission.