The Air Force Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps has taken another black eye.
Less than two years after the service’s top legal officer was demoted two grades and forced to retire for unprofessional conduct, another senior JAG is facing potential charges, after it was discovered that he has no law license, and was disbarred by two states more than 20 years ago.
According to Air Force Times, Colonel Michael D. Murphy has been removed from his post as Commander of the service’s Legal Operations Agency on 20 November, after his past ethical problems were disclosed. Murphy apparently never told his commanders that he had been disbarred in both Texas and Louisiana, as required by Air Force regulations that govern the status of JAG officers. In the wake of the Murphy scandal, the Air Force’s current JAG has directed that all of his lawyers provide proof that they have a law license–and are in good standig with a federal or state bar association–by the end of December.
Murphy’s professional problems apparently began before he joined the service. As a civilian attorney in 1981, he was late in filing an appeal for a client convicted of burgulary charges. The state of Texas sued him the following year, and as a result of that suit, his law license was suspended for seven years. Murphy apparently lied on a subsequent application for admission to the Louisiana bar, stating that he had never been sued, nor the subject of disciplinary action. When the earlier suspension came to light, both Texas and Louisiana permanently disbarred Murphy in 1984 and 1985 respectively. Colonel Murphy joined the Air Force in 1983, while his law license was suspended in Texas, but before being disbarred by either state.
It is troubling that Murphy’s problems went undetected for more than two decades, while his JAG career moved along swimmingly. According to the Times, Colonel Murphy held a number of high-profile assignments in recent years, serving two tours as general counsel to the White House military office, and a six-month stint as Commandant of the AF JAG school. In his most recent position at the Legal Operations Agency, Murphy was responsible for administration of the Air Force’s civil litigation and military justice programs.
In terms of what this means to the JAG Corps, a retired Air Force attorney, Lieutenant Colonel John J. “Lou” Michaels Jr., told the Times:
“This is another in a series of very public black eyes for a group of people who don’t seem to get the picture that there is problem with the process for picking people for big jobs…The Air Force JAG did not need another high-profile misconduct case by its senior leadership.”
More distressing is the scandal’s possible impact on cases Murphy was involved in. Earlier in his career, as a unit-level JAG, Murphy provided legal counsel on the punishment of military members and served as an Air Force prosecutor. The Air Force says there is legal precedent for cases involving clients represented by unlicensed attorneys, and a JAG doesn’t have to be a member of a state bar for a verdict to be valid. However, that won’t stop convicted military personnel (some of whom are probably still in prison) from filing appeals. The cost to the Air Force, in terms of man-hours required to handle those appeals, will probably run in the thousands of dollars.
Meanwhile, Colonel Murphy is on leave, and will be reassigned to duties that don’t involve the practice of law. He’s probably hunting for a good attorney (if he doesn’t have one already), since he could face charges from the Air Force, beginning with fraudulent enlistment and lying to his superiors.
It’s unclear if Murphy had any ties to disgraced former AF JAG Donald Fiscus, who was demoted from Major General to Colonel in January 2005, after receiving non-judical punishment on a host of charges. An investigation revealed that Fiscus had engaged in numerous extra-marital affairs while on active duty, prompting charges of unprofessional conduct, fraternization, and obstruction of justice. Fiscus’s “punishment” was viewed as a miscarriage of justice in some AF circles, since many lower-ranking personnel have been drummed out of service, imprisoned, and stripped of their pensions for similar offenses.
With the Fiscus verdict still fresh in the Air Force’s collective mind, it will be interesting to see how the service handles the Murphy scandal.