Appeals Court Judge Hunter Murphy censured for condoning workplace harassment by friend-turned-aide

(Photo: Judge J. Hunter Murphy, North Carolina Judicial Branch)

The Supreme Court of North Carolina ordered the censure of Appeals Court Judge Hunter Murphy for enabling a “toxic work environment” in his chamber, in a disciplinary order reaffirming the Judicial Standards Commission recommendation Friday. The ruling was unanimous, with the exception of Justice Mark Davis, who did not take part in consideration of the matter.

Murphy, a Republican, hired his high school friend Ben Tuite as his executive assistant, the senior position on his three-person law clerk staff, after being elected in 2016.

It wasn’t before long that Tuite started bullying and harassing his coworkers, exhibiting a “pattern of making lewd or sexually inappropriate remarks in the workplace,” according to the court order.

Tuite told his female colleague that he would like to see her in a “wife beater tank top and shorts on a cold day,” and made jokes about other female applicants’ body parts as “fun bags.”

Tuite avoided his responsibilities such as cite-checking, a process of ensuring accuracy in draft opinions. He yelled the f-word when someone pointed out problems in his work and pounded on the desk violently enough to trigger a panic alarm. State records show that he made $50,419 at the time.

Murphy also participated in making jokes and inappropriate comments, allowing Tuite’s derogatory remarks in group texts about another law clerk, who already resigned less than two months into his clerkship. He also continued to dismiss others’ complaints about Tuite.

Several female law clerks resigned that year before their terms concluded or declined renewal of offer.

Despite being a witness to several of the instances, Murphy repeatedly assured his friend that he could keep his job, even days before ultimately asking Tuite to resign on January 5, 2018. 

“You are not losing your job,” Murphy texted. “This sucks tremendously for everyone, especially given what I expect to be an easy resolution when the smoke clears.”

Throughout the Administrative Office of the Courts Human Resources Division and Judicial Standards Commission investigations, Murphy “downplayed, minimized and mischaracterized” Tuite’s workplace misconduct.

Murphy argued that by prosecuting the case, the commission violated his rights to due process of law. The Supreme Court deemed otherwise and affirmed the dual investigative and judicial function of the committee. 

The Judicial Standards Commission currently consists of five judges, four attorneys appointed by the state bar, and three citizen members appointed by the governor and the General Assembly. It reviews complaints regarding state district, superior, and appellate court judges and justices, but does not handle those made against clerks and magistrates.

The court determined that Murphy violated the Judicial Code of Conduct, and committed “willful misconduct in office and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice”.

When there is evidence of judicial misconduct, the commission makes recommendations to the state Supreme Court, which hands down disciplinary actions. In this case, the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction and upheld the censure recommended unanimously by the commission.

For sanctions against judges, censure is stronger than a public reprimand and one level below suspension and removal.

Murphy was represented by Bob Orr, a former North Carolina Supreme Court justice who now practices law.

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