Top Air Force lawyer relieved of command
Colonel had been disbarred; JAGs now must show proof of valid license
ARLINGTON, Va. — Col. Michael D. Murphy was one of the Air Force’s top legal eagles. He practiced law for 23 years, even serving as commandant of the Air Force Judge Advocate General School in 2005.
But Murphy’s high-flying career came to a halt on Nov. 30, when the Air Force relieved him of his command of the Air Force Legal Operations Agency in Washington after discovering that he had failed to disclose that two states yanked his law license more than 20 years ago.
Speaking through an intermediary in the Air Force legal office, Col. Murphy declined to speak to Stripes, Air Force spokesman Dewey Mitchell said Monday.
Until now, Air Force legal officials used the honor system among its lawyers, trusting them to self-certify annually that they are members in good standing of either a state or federal bar association.
But in the wake of this case, all Air Force lawyers now have until Dec. 31 to show their immediate supervisors “visual proof” that they hold a valid law license from an accredited bar association, according to Air Force spokeswoman Jean Schaeffer.
Notice was sent to all JAGs in a Dec. 5 memo from Deputy Judge Advocate General Maj. Gen. Jack Rives, Schaeffer told Stars and Stripes on Dec. 7.
Murphy’s status was discovered “during an internal review [conducted] for a completely unrelated reason,” according to Lt. Col. Lisa Turner, chief of the Policy and Projects Implementation Division for The Judge Advocate General of the Air Force.
The Air Force Times first reported Murphy’s relief from command.
Murphy holds a law degree from University of Texas, according to officials, and joined the Air Force in November 1983. Texas disbarred Murphy, first for seven years in August 1983, then permanently in 1985, for professional misconduct, according to copies of the official Texas and Louisiana disbarment documents sent to Stripes by Kim Davey, a spokeswoman for the State Bar of Texas.
He was also disbarred by the state of Louisiana in 1984 for lying under oath in saying he had never been sued (Texas had sued him as part of that disbarment) or subject to disciplinary action as a lawyer.
In addition to serving as general counsel to the White House Military Office from December 2001 to January 2003 and from August 2003 to January 2005, Murphy did tours in Europe and the Pacific.
He served from May 1991 to April 1993 at Soesterberg Air Base in The Netherlands, and from July 1999 to June 2000 at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, according to the Secretary of the Air Force public affairs office.
His Pacific Air Forces tour was at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.
Turner declined to comment on Murphy’s case directly, saying that it is under investigation.
“We really don’t have the facts,” Turner said.
Murphy had been able to practice without a license because while the Air Force requires all lawyers to be members in good standing, until now it has operated on an honor system.
“We have relied on individuals to notify us of their continued good standing before their bar through an online reporting system,” Turner said.
“JAGs are also obligated to immediately notify the JAG Corps of matters affecting their license to practice law,” she said.
The JAG Corps used the self-certification system because “a huge number of our people are trustworthy,” Turner said.
Murphy never worked as a judge or as a defense counsel during his Air Force JAG career, according to Turner, and if someone challenges the legal advice Murphy gave during his time in the Air Force, Air Force officials will look at the issues “on a case-by-case basis,” Turner said.
“A person who does not have the proper credentials at any particular time may still be able to provide competent legal advice,” she said. “If a credentials issue arises there is no presumption that the legal advice provided by that person was incompetent. Actions taken as a result of that advice are not automatically void.”
Turner refused to discuss potential punishments for Murphy, saying that “the facts of the case have not been established,” and without knowing precisely the extent of his trangressions, “it would be improper to speculate” what the punishment might be.
Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, told Stripes that the actions ascribed to Murphy would be a violation of Article 107 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which deals with making false official statements or knowingly submitting false documents.
The maximum punishment for such an offense is dismissal, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and five years’ confinement, Fidell told Stripes on Friday.
However, instead of a court-martial, Murphy could face an administrative punishment, which might include written or oral reprimands and being offered the choice of mandatory retirement (with or without the loss of rank) in lieu of facing a trial, Fidell said.