A hearing officer has recommended that Superior Court Judge Ernest B. Murphy be publicly reprimanded for sending two letters - including one on court stationery - to the publisher of the Boston Herald after winning a $2 million libel suit.
A 27-page report to the Commission on Judicial Conduct noted that although the letters were "improper in tone and content," Murphy was under "very substantial stress" as a result of "the Herald's articles and their aftermath."
The hearing officer, Peter W. Kilborn, wrote that while similar cases resulted in stiffer penalties that included a $5,000 fine or a six-month suspension, Murphy's missteps were less grave.
"None of Judge Murphy's conduct in this matter involved his activities as a judge," wrote Kilborn, a retired state judge. "The conduct was part of his private, not judicial, life."
The report dismissed a claim by Murphy's lawyer that the letters were part of the judge's own colorful style. "The style may be part of what got the judge in trouble," Kilborn wrote.
The recommendation comes after a two-day hearing last month at which Murphy and Herald Publisher Patrick J. Purcell testified. Kilborn also recommended that Murphy be charged the costs incurred by the commission.
The Supreme Judicial Court will make the ultimate decision about any disciplinary sanctions. Kilborn's recommendation would entail a reprimand made public in the high court's official record.
The Herald published a series of stories in 2002 that portrayed Murphy as a lenient judge. In one story quoting anonymous sources, the paper wrote that Murphy had instructed lawyers during a conference in his chambers to tell a 14-year-old rape victim to "get over it." Murphy testified that he had actually said they would have to help the victim get over the rape.
On the same day a jury ordered the newspaper to pay him $2 million in damages, Murphy wrote Purcell a letter on court stationery. The judge urged Purcell not to appeal and demanded a confidential meeting in which he should bring a check to settle the suit. In a second letter dated March 18, 2005, Murphy warned Purcell that he had "a ZERO chance of reversing my jury verdict on appeal."
In June lawyers for the Herald paid Murphy $3.4 million, which included $1.4 million in interest.
In a statement, Purcell said yesterday that the paper was "pleased with the hearing officer's report." Murphy's lawyer, Michael E. Mone, did not return a phone message seeking comment.
The judge and the commission both have 20 days to submit written objections to the report by the hearing officer. Murphy and Purcell also have 20 days to request a full hearing before the nine-member commission.
The commission will present its own findings to the SJC.