Book Review: ‘Justice and Faith: The Frank Murphy Story’ by Greg Zipes

A thorough recounting of Michigan legal giant Frank Murphy’s life is packed with great detail but lacks a compelling narrative
Frank Murphy
Frank Murphy, a former governor, U.S. attorney general, and the only Michigander to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, is a worthy subject of a historical biography. If only this one had a bit more panache …

While talking about Greg Zipes’ new biography, Justice and Faith: The Frank Murphy Story, with my attorney husband, I realized a moment too late that I was stepping in it. “The writing’s clear, the book’s sensibly organized, and it was well researched and informative,” I said, setting the table. “But, you know, it’s also written by a lawyer.”

“Wait a minute,” said Joe, chuckling. “I think I’m about to be offended. What do you mean by that?!”

What I meant was this: Though there’s often a good deal of overlap between reportage and storytelling, they are not the same thing. Both aim to communicate facts and ideas, yes, but storytelling also seeks to entertain. 

Many of the most memorable nonfiction works — including legal arguments, according to Joe — achieve both by sculpting a narrative from true events while deploying voice as a means of connecting with the reader. Justice and Faith falls short here, even as I learned loads about a man whose name I’d previously only associated with a courthouse in Detroit that bears his name.

Indeed, it’s too bad the book is not more accessible, because the loss of the name of a legal giant and Michigan original like Murphy to time now seems downright bonkers. Born in 1890 in a small shore town two hours north of Detroit, Murphy went from barely graduating from the University of Michigan Law School to becoming a criminal court judge, the mayor of Detroit, the governor of Michigan, a governor general of the Philippines, FDR’s attorney general, and finally, a Supreme Court justice.

Murphy’s meteoric rise coincided with some of the most dramatic events of the 20th century — two world wars, Prohibition, the Great Depression, the New Deal, etc. — so his relatively short 59 years of life feel nonetheless action-packed.

And while he might initially seem like a kind of Forrest Gump forebear, appearing in photographs (many of them drawn from U-M’s Bentley Historical Library) alongside far more famous historical figures, Murphy’s place among them was earned through a dogged dedication to ideals that dovetailed neatly with FDR’s progressivism.

The earliest examples of this involved Murphy, as a judge, regularly siding with “the working man”; as mayor of Detroit, venturing to Washington, D.C., at the height of the Depression to seek financial help at a time when no city mayor had ever thought to do so; and as governor, peacefully and personally mediating tense, large-scale labor disputes.

What’s more, as Zipes demonstrates, Murphy was ahead of his time on racial issues. Most notably, in 1942 as a Supreme Court justice, he wrote a stinging, still-cited dissent to a 6-3 ruling in Korematsu v. United States that found internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II to be constitutional. “All residents of this nation are kin in some way by blood or culture to a foreign land,” he wrote. “Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of the new and distinct civilization of the United States.”

In the end, Zipes acknowledges that, despite his exhaustive research, there are a few things we’ll never definitively know about Murphy, including the charismatic lifelong bachelor’s sexual orientation. Murphy also has long been viewed by Supreme Court scholars as an intellectual lightweight, owing to his refusal to rely on precedent in opinions. Instead, he seemed to build his arguments on the foundations of his own personal morality and sense of democratic principles, thus making him, perhaps, a quintessential activist judge.

Zipes’ concluding chapter may be the most effective in framing the big-picture view of this largely forgotten man’s true, cumulative impact: “The United States might have veered in directions that would have made the country a far different place for its citizens in the twenty-first century. It could have become more authoritarian; been less focused on universal education, science, and infrastructure; and had fewer safety nets for the poor, the unhealthy, and the dispossessed. Frank Murphy and others like him saved us from that fate, and we benefit to this day.”

This story is featured in the November 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.