Given the monstrous possibility of a Trump victory nationally, it may seem petty to worry about the decline of public ethics in this little town of Berkeley. But the local air has carried the stink of corruption for a while now. The city council majority has rubberstamped a string of high rise luxury housing projects, about the last thing this city needs. A former city planning official, Mark Rhoades, sold his contacts and insider knowledge to the out-of-town developers pushing these projects. The City Council majority is eating out of his hands.
Now there’s a candidate for city council in the district where I live whose ethics are, if anything, even lower. His name is Stephen Murphy. Stephen Murphy is dishonest, a hypocrite, incompetent, frivolous, truculent, unprofessional, incapable of showing remorse, and careless of taxpayer resources. That’s not my personal opinion, it’s part of the written opinion of the California Court of Appeals. How’s that?
Murphy, a lawyer, represented one side in a divorce case where the other side was old and ill. If the matter was delayed long enough, the other party might die. According to the affected family, who also live in this same district of Berkeley, Murphy deliberately dragged on the litigation. One of Murphy’s delaying tactics was to prosecute an appeal even though the time limit for filing an appeal had already passed.
Murphy was able to get away with this normally dead-end maneuver (for a while) because the clerk of the family law court in Oakland had not kept a copy of the proof of service for the court decision that Murphy was appealing from. Murphy had actually received the decision. But the crucial fax cover sheet which was proof of service on him, and started the appeal clock ticking, was not in the court file that was sent up to the Court of Appeals. Unaware that the appeal was filed past the deadline, the judges of the Court of Appeals worked up the case and were preparing to render a decision when the other side hired a lawyer specializing in appeals. This lawyer smelled a rat and asked Murphy to please provide him with a copy of the missing proof of service. The court clerk who had neglected to keep a copy also asked Murphy the same thing.
Normally this kind of request from one lawyer to another, or from a court clerk, is routinely granted as a matter of professional courtesy. I practiced law for 29 years and there must have been a dozen times when I or an opposing lawyer exchanged courtesy copies of papers that we couldn’t locate in our own files. But Murphy got on a high horse with the requesting lawyer and said he had no duty to send him a copy of the paper. And Murphy got cute with the court clerk, refusing to send the clerk a copy of the paper because allegedly personal and confidential notes had been handwritten on it.
That’s already chicanery. But if Murphy had backed off and provided the missing paper at that stage of the proceedings, the appeal would have been thrown out of court. There’s no excuses for filing a late appeal. You snooze, you lose. So, like Trump when he’s caught in a trap, Murphy doubled down. He filed papers with the Court of Appeals in which he evaded the whole timing issue, launched personal attacks and threats against the other lawyer, and with slippery words lied to the Court of Appeals that the proof of service had never been served on him. Even when the missing paper finally surfaced and he was caught red-handed he made threadbare excuses and showed no remorse.
In ordinary business or social life, that kind of behavior gets a person a reputation as a crook and a pathological liar. In the Court of Appeals, after bending over backwards to give Murphy every benefit of the doubt, the judges had this to say:
“What is especially disturbing to us is Murphy’s steadfast refusal to acknowledge his breach of his duty to provide us with a document bearing on our jurisdiction and to express any remorse for that breach.”
“Murphy aggressively and with remarkable temerity threatened [opposing counsel] with sanctions.”
Murphy’s “response to us ‘was both truculent and dismissive.'”
Murphy “repeated his personal attacks” on opposing counsel.
Murphy “demonstrated no recognition whatsoever of the gravity of his misconduct.”
Murphy “met our concerns with nothing but petulance and disregard.”
The “degree of objective frivolousness is very high …. ‘no competent attorney could conceivably believe in good faith’ the appeal was timely.”
Murphy displayed “steadfast refusal to recognize his conduct as blameworthy.”
Murphy’s conduct displayed “‘dishonesty and lack of remorse.'”
This conduct “has also harmed others….Other appellate parties, many of whom wait years for a resolution of bona fide disputes, are prejudiced by the useless diversion of this court’s attention…. In the same vein, the appellate system and the taxpayers of this state are damaged by what amounts to a waste of this court’s time and resources. … In this time of limited budgets and strained judicial resources, this court can ill afford to devote its attention to an appeal it has no power at all to hear.”
For this conduct, the Court of Appeals fined Murphy $8,500 to be paid to the court, plus a portion of the opposing party’s costs and attorney fees to be determined by the court below. The $8,500 is one of the highest monetary sanctions ever imposed by the Court of Appeals. Only two out of a thousand appellate cases ever result in the imposition of monetary sanctions in any amount.
As a lawyer, I find Murphy’s conduct appalling. I have been up against a number of lawyers at various times who have been rude, dishonest, and cut a corner or two. But I’ve never seen or heard of anybody who tried to defraud the Court of Appeals by hiding the court paper that would kill his case. That’s a truly Trumpian level of chutzpah.
The Court of Appeals filed its opinion containing the above remarks on November 30, 2012, not even four years ago. This is not ancient history. When the East Bay Times first broke this story on Sept. 16 (this year), Murphy told an interviewer, “I’ve licked my wounds and moved on … I learned from my mistakes and moved on.” Murphy’s concern with his own wounds isn’t paired with a shred of concern for the wounds he inflicted on others. He refers to “my mistakes” but without specifying whether his mistake was doing the fraud or being caught. Like a true narcissist, he doesn’t apologize or try to make amends. He just “moves on,” like Trump “moved on” from his birther fraud.
Stephen Murphy is now trying to “move on” to the Berkeley City Council. The family who were devastated by Murphy’s conduct have launched a website, http://www.stephenmurphy2016.org, expressing their opposition to his candidacy. Referring to the Court of Appeals decision, they write:
The ruling reflects poorly on Mr. Murphy’s character, integrity, attitude toward the use of public resources, and fitness for office.
It is for these reasons that our family, as Berkeley District 5 voters, cannot stomach the prospect of Stephen Murphy representing us on the Berkeley City Council. If he has any sense of decency, he will withdraw from the race.
To that sentiment, which I second, I want to add my disappointment with the elected officials who have endorsed this rotten apple, with the employer who has put him in a position of administrative responsibility, and with the City Council member who appointed him to a city commission. A woman candidate with this stain on her record would be torn to shreds. But Stephen Murphy seems to wear teflon. His campaign chest is loaded with developer money. From the big developer point of view, a man who would try to defraud the Court of Appeals — a man of big chutzpah, small brain, and no ethics — is perfect for the Berkeley City Council.