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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Does Air Force Legal Fiasco Shine Light on Siegelman Case?

A colonel once considered one of the Air Force's top judge advocates generals has left the service after it was discovered that he had practiced law for more than 20 years without a license. In an indirect way, the case shines new light on the prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman.

Col. Michael D. Murphy left the Air Force on April 1 after a 26-year career. For more than 20 years of that career, Murphy practiced law without a license after he had been disbarred in Texas and Louisiana for his actions as a civilian attorney.

Murphy had numerous plum assignments, including serving as commandant of the Judge Advocate General School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. Maxwell was the base for much of the prosecution's work in the Siegelman case.

How did a non-lawyer manage to climb so high on the Air Force's career ladder? The Air Force Times reports:

The high image of Murphy collapsed in 2006 when the Air Force learned Murphy had been disbarred more than two decades earlier for actions as a civilian attorney in Texas—he failed to file an appeal on time—and then lied to the service about his qualifications.

Texas didn’t disbar Murphy immediately for his 1981 mistake; it suspended him first. The suspension allowed him to join the Air Force because he still technically had a law license.

Aware he would be disbarred in Texas, though, Murphy applied to the Louisiana bar—lying about his suspension. The Bayou State granted him a license. Texas finally disbarred him in May 1984. Louisiana followed suit in September 1985 when it learned what was going on.

Murphy never told his bosses about the legal problems, and the Air Force at the time did not require lawyers to prove they had a law license.

After the Air Force learned of Murphy’s problems, it began requiring all its judge advocates general to prove they are members of the bar.

How is this for irony?

In the intervening years, Murphy not only tended to the Air Force’s legal matters, he volunteered to teach ethics and best practices to civilian attorneys and third-year law students at Louisiana State University

What was the outcome of the Murphy matter? He will lose more than $1 million in retirement pay over the next 30 years. But it could have been much worse:

Legal complications kept Murphy’s case from reaching a court-martial until March 2009. After a three-day trial, a 10-member military jury found Murphy guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer, theft by filing fraudulent vouchers and failing to maintain his legal qualifications.

Because his defense attorneys could not present evidence of Murphy’s “good conduct” as a White House staff member because of the classified nature of his work, an Army judge ruled Murphy’s sentencing hearing would not be fair. Murphy, the judge ruled, could not be ordered to prison—he faced a maximum of 41 years—or fined.

How does all of this tie in with the Siegelman prosecution? Well, Air Force footprints were all over that case. The prosecution team, representing the U.S. Department of Justice, conducted much of its work at an off-site location--Maxwell Air Force Base. Key prosecutor Stephen P. Feaga is an Air Force Reserve colonel. Recent reports indicate the Siegelman prosecution might have been driven largely by the battle for a massive Air Force tanker contract.

Based on what we now know about Michael D. Murphy, is there extra reason to question any case with ties to Maxwell Air Force Base? We would say the answer is yes.

Alabama blogger Robby Scott Hill, who has a law degree, provides insight on the hypocrisy that grips the legal profession--in both the military and civilian worlds. And he shows how this hypocrisy affects our country as a whole:

While the USAF refused to commission licensed attorneys who were graduates of The Jones School of Law at Faulkner University across town on The East Side of Montgomery, it conveniently overlooked the fact that The Commandant of its JAG School had been disbarred by The States of Texas and Louisiana, was not licensed to practice law and Murphy actively assisted the Bush Administration in violating International Law when it directed "enemy combatants" to be tortured and indefinitely detained without due process of law.

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