Late judge Diana Murphy honored with renaming of Minneapolis federal courthouse

A smiling woman stands at a podium.
Judge Diana Murphy speaks after being presented with the first Honorable Diana E. Murphy Legacy Award during a "Leadership, Gender, and Judicial Selection" program Oct. 17, 2008 in School of Law's Schulze Grand Atrium at the University of St. Thomas. Murphy died in 2018.
Mike Ekern | Courtesy of University of St. Thomas

Dozens of attorneys and judges are expected to gather in downtown Minneapolis to honor a trailblazer in the Twin Cities legal community. Judge Diana Murphy — who died last year at age 84 — was the first woman appointed to the federal bench in Minnesota and the first to sit on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

At a ceremony Wednesday, the federal courthouse in downtown Minneapolis will be named after her, just the sixth U.S. courthouse named for a woman.

Murphy’s path to the federal bench began relatively late in life. In 1971, when she was 37, Murphy enrolled in the University of Minnesota Law School. Ann Montgomery, a federal judge herself, said her classmate immediately stood out, and not just because she was a decade and a half older than the other students.

“She was clearly, from the very first exam, distinguishing herself by being a really keen, brilliant legal mind,” Montgomery said.

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Before law school, Murphy had been a civic activist and Fulbright scholar, but most of her early adulthood was devoted to raising her two sons. Montgomery said she and Murphy were among just 25 women in their class, the largest number up to that point.

“We were in some classes singled out for extra questioning. It was not a particularly comfortable place to be for a woman,” she said.

After graduating in 1974, Murphy spent two years at the Lindquist & Vennum firm before becoming a Hennepin County judge. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. District Court for Minnesota.

Federal courthouse in Minneapolis
The federal courthouse in downtown Minneapolis, pictured here on Oct. 9, 2019, is being named in honor of Judge Diana Murphy, who died in 2018.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Margaret Chutich worked as a law clerk for Murphy in the mid 1980s, where a big part of her job was drafting opinions. Chutich, a Minnesota Supreme Court justice, said in one early case, she had a tough time making a recommendation because there was limited information.

“She took the time to understand and explain, and I’ve often said that I think that’s her very ethos,” Chutich said. “Judge Murphy did the very best she could with the facts that she was given, the law that she was given, and in everything that she did.”

Colleagues say Murphy developed an expertise in many aspects of the law, from intellectual property to employment discrimination to tribal treaty rights. In a landmark case, Murphy ruled in 1994 that the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe retained hunting and fishing rights outlined in an 1837 treaty. The state of Minnesota appealed, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Murphy’s decision.

Shortly after she made that ruling, Murphy was promoted to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. For a long time, she was the only woman on that court as well. Fellow judges were collegial, but not everyone treated her with respect.

Related In 2008: Few women are judges on the U.S. Courts of Appeals

“For many years, the court employed a photographer, and they would say ‘Now gentlemen, look up,’ and it would just put me in a bad mood. And you were supposed to smile and look pleasant and I didn’t feel like it. You feel many times like you’re the sore thumb, and they chose to act as if you didn’t exist,” she told MPR News in 2008.

For decades, Murphy suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, but her colleagues say it never slowed her down, and she didn’t complain about her physical challenges.

Even with a career hearing cases from seven states and serving on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Murphy remained deeply engaged in Minnesota civic life. She served on many boards, including at the University of St. Thomas.

U.S. District Court Chief Judge John Tunheim said Murphy proved that judges can have a public life outside the courtroom without compromising their independence.

“Some judges believe that their role is to sit behind their desk or behind the bench every day. She taught us in a major way how important it is for judges to remain involved in the community in proper ways.”