This article by Greene Espel attorneys Caitlinrose Fisher and Virginia McCalmont first appeared in the December 11th issue of Bar Talk, a newsletter by the Minnesota Chapter of the Federal Bar Association.
On October 16, 2019, the Minneapolis federal courthouse gained a new name, and the late Eighth Circuit Judge Diana E. Murphy added yet another first to her remarkable career—becoming the first female circuit judge to have a federal courthouse named after her. The Minneapolis federal courthouse is now the “Diana E. Murphy United States Courthouse.”
Family, fellow judges, former law clerks, friends, and admirers gathered to mark the occasion, which was set in motion a year and a half earlier by former law clerk and general counsel to Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, Karl Procaccini, with Judge Murphy’s learning of the effort and giving her blessing to it just weeks before her passing. The process to name a federal building can be a complex one. But in this instance, the process moved swiftly and smoothly, culminating in congressional approval in just a few months. See 132 Stat. 3893 (2018). The widespread support enjoyed by the renaming effort—as demonstrated by the unanimous support of Minnesota’s congressional delegation—reflected the universal view that there could be no better person after whom to name the Minneapolis federal courthouse and no better tribute to Judge Murphy’s lasting legacy on the court.
Judge Murphy’s impact on the Minneapolis courthouse was quite literal. In written remarks read at the naming ceremony, Senior United States District Judge Donald D. Alsop described Judge Murphy as the mother of the courthouse structure. The building was proposed and designed during Judge Murphy’s tenure as Chief Judge of the District of Minnesota. Judge Murphy took her role in overseeing the building’s construction seriously, offering suggestions about how to ensure that the courthouse was a place welcoming to all who entered it and selecting the rock men that grace the courthouse plaza. During that time, she developed a deep and lasting friendship with the building’s architect, Richard Gilyard. In fact, much to the delight of her law clerks, every December, Gilyard would join Judge Murphy and her chambers staff for lunch, regaling everyone with bits of trivia and funny anecdotes about the building and its construction. Judge Murphy not only was involved in the building’s development, she was also effective at managing it. As Emily W. Murphy, Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration (no relation to Judge Murphy) noted at the courthouse naming ceremony, under Judge Murphy’s leadership, the courthouse was built on time and under budget.
Judge Murphy’s impact on the Court extends far beyond its physical structure. Judge Murphy was the first woman appointed to the District of Minnesota (1980) and to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (1994). On the Eighth Circuit, she remained the sole female judge until Judge Jane L. Kelly joined her in 2013. Judge Murphy dedicated herself to advancing the status of women in the legal profession and on the bench, serving as a devoted mentor to many and participating in the Infinity Project’s work. As United States District Judge Nancy E. Brasel noted in her remarks at the courthouse naming ceremony, Judge Murphy’s seat on the District of Minnesota is a special testament to Judge Murphy’s legacy and efforts to advance gender parity on the bench, as it is the only federal judgeship in the United States to have been held for nearly fifty years by an unbroken line of women jurists (Judge Murphy, Senior United States District Judge Ann D. Montgomery, and Judge Brasel). Judge Brasel said that she will “hold the seat in trust” until the next woman’s turn—a sentiment that would have been both shared and deeply appreciated by Judge Murphy.
The remarks at the courthouse naming ceremony reflected Judge Murphy’s lasting impact on those who were fortunate enough to know her both personally and professionally. Chief United States District Judge John R. Tunheim served as the master of ceremonies, which also included video remarks from Representative Tom Emmer, the chief sponsor of the House bill to rename the courthouse (H.R. 6244 115th Cong. (2018)), and written remarks from Senator Amy Klobuchar, the chief sponsor of the Senate bill (S. 3021, 115th Cong. § 4315 (2018)). Several of Judge Murphy’s colleagues, friends, and family spoke, sharing memories of the Judge’s quick wit and incisive judgment. Judge Murphy’s colleague on the Eighth Circuit, Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith, called Judge Murphy “the real deal”—someone who was unapologetically herself and lived the ideals of her commission both on and off the bench. Judge Murphy’s son, John Murphy, spoke of Judge Murphy’s abiding love for the law and her more than one hundred law clerks, whom she viewed as family. One of those clerks, Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Margaret H. Chutich, spoke of the influence Judge Murphy had on the lives of her clerk family, teaching all of those who worked with her the importance of considering each case carefully on its own merits and drafting opinions in language that is clear and accessible.
The ceremony concluded with Chief Judge Tunheim’s reading a proclamation by Governor Walz, which stated that in light of Judge Murphy’s “trailblazing life and lasting legacy, it is fitting that the Diana E. Murphy United Judge Murphy, continued on page 3. 3 States Courthouse is the first federal building in the Eighth Circuit to be named after a woman” and proclaimed October 16, 2019, as “Diana E. Murphy Day.” After the proclamation was read, attendees moved outside to witness the unveiling of Judge Murphy’s name on the courthouse’s exterior. Guests were also treated to a performance by a Native American drum circle, an ode to Judge Murphy’s noted expertise in and commitment to the development of federal Native American law. It is hard to capture in words what it means to those who knew Judge Murphy best to see her name prominently displayed on the building to which she gave so much of herself. But many in the gathered crowd nodded in agreement when Judge Murphy’s law school classmate, friend, and fellow member of the District of Minnesota, Senior Judge Montgomery, noted that she would “always be proud to say that I work in the Diana E. Murphy Courthouse.”