A member of North Carolina’s second highest court was publicly disciplined Friday for contributing to a “toxic work environment” in his office in which his female clerks were sexually harassed, subjected to profane language and threatening behavior, and publicly demeaned.
In a rare move, the North Carolina Supreme Court censured Appeals Court Judge Hunter Murphy for failing to stop the behavior of his executive assistant before misrepresenting it to investigators. By doing so, the state Supreme Court ruled, Murphy helped foster a work atmosphere that spilled out of his office, drew the attention of fellow judges, and “denigrated the reputation and integrity of the judiciary as a whole.”
Murphy, 39, did not respond to an Observer phone call Friday seeking comment. The Waynesville Republican was elected in 2016 to an eight-year term. He’s one of 15 judges on the Court of Appeals.
His attorney, former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, said that he was “terribly disappointed with the decision,” but that Murphy accepts it.
Murphy contested the charges filed by the state’s Judicial Standards Commission throughout the 2 1/2-year proceedings, marking the first time in a decade that the Supreme Court publicly disciplined a judge in a contested case. The public reprimand of an appeals court judge is even rarer, dating back to the commission’s public reprimand in 2007 of now retired appellate Judge Douglas McCullough following his DWI arrest.
Charlotte attorney John Wester, who represented the commission in a hearing before the state Supreme Court in August, said Friday that the court’s opinion upholds the findings and reflects “the thoroughness the commission brought to this regrettable story. In my view there are no winners.
“The stakes are different, and so high,” Wester said. “Our citizens must have confidence in the highest standards of professionalism and integrity in our judicial system. Today’s opinion reflects the Supreme Court’s determination to protect those standards.”
The public rebuke — the harshest disciplinary action beside suspension and removal from office — homed in on the conduct of Murphy’s executive assistant, Ben Tuite, a “close, personal” friend from Murphy’s high school days in western North Carolina who the judge hired when he took office.
Tuite, according to an investigation by the commission, quickly poisoned the office for his female co-workers by frequently making ”lewd and suggestive” comments to the judge’s female clerks, threatening their job security and demeaning their work in front of Murphy.
In late October 2017, during a discussion over the hiring of law clerks, Tuite, with the judge sitting nearby, told a female clerk to shut her mouth and that her opinion “did not f—–g matter,” according to the opinion.
In a rare move, Murphy told him later to apologize. According to the opinion, Tuite offered a non-apology to the clerk followed by a veiled threat reminding her that he influenced hiring and firing.
When Murphy was approached by an official with the Administrative Office of the Courts, according to the opinion, the judge “lacked candor and downplayed, minimized,and mischaracterized” the complaints he had received about Tuite. He did so “because his conduct and judgment were influenced by his close personal friendship with and loyalty towards Mr. Tuite,” the Supreme Court wrote.
The atmosphere got so bad that one of the clerks told Murphy that she would take a week of vacation during the judge’s absence rather than be with Tuite in the office alone.
Tuite could not be reached for comment.
In his 89-page defense argument, Orr accused the Judicial Standards Commission of going far beyond its role of investigating alleged misbehavior.
“There is no question the commission prosecuted Judge Murphy,” he wrote. “The (Supreme) Court must determine whether and to what extent a judge or justice may be held responsible for the acts of their staff.”
Orr added that the Supreme Court justices were treading “a perilous path in advocating for this Court to become the ultimate personnel manager of the judiciary.”
However, the high court’s opinion disagreed, saying Murphy violated the judicial canons “by being dismissive of and turning a blind eye to comments and incidents that took place both within and outside of his presence.
“A judge cannot ‘establish, maintain and enforce appropriate standards of conduct’ if he chooses to ignore egregious misconduct.”
The Judicial Standards Commission, on average, forwards two or three complaints about judges to the Supreme Court each year.
Judges have been removed
In 2010, the Supreme Court banned former Mecklenburg District Court Judge Bill Belk, who had resigned six months earlier, from returning to the bench, ruling that he demonstrated “willful misconduct in office.”
The Supreme Court said Belk violated state judicial rules by remaining on the board of Sonic Automotive, one of the nation’s largest auto retailers. The judicial code bars judges’ service on business boards of directors in order to avoid conflicts of interest.
That same year, Chief Justice Sarah Parker suspended Mecklenburg District Court Judge John Totten, following what sources described as Totten’s inappropriate comments to court personnel. In some of those remarks, the sources said, Totten had recounted experiences at a bar and restaurant and described women’s bodies and how scantily they were dressed.
In 2018, the Supreme Court also suspended now retired Mecklenburg District Court Judge Ron Chapman for 30 days without pay after the veteran jurist failed to rule on a motion for permanent child support for five years.