Judge Paul Murphy is no slouch, and those who come before him in his West Allis municipal courtroom are witness to his uprightness.
His role as judge requires it because the men and women deciding people’s fates in custody hearings, domestic disputes, criminal trials and more are obligated to see and hear all of the facts necessary to make tough decisions.
The layout and setup of the West Allis Municipal Court make that difficult, however. Murphy presides from a tall desk that, unless he sits up perfectly straight, obstructs his full view of the court and the victims, witnesses, defendants and plaintiffs appearing before him.
Murphy wants the full view. He wants to notice physical cues — the smiles, the grimaces, the open-mouth exasperation, the shaking or nodding heads — that those in his courtroom display as their lives collide, most often reluctantly, with the law.
It’s a problem the city looked to remedy recently as part of a remodeling project.
But Murphy, a former city alderman hesitant to spend money unless absolutely necessary, halted plans to have the desk lowered. He wants more time to consider other solutions to the courtroom’s layout and visibility challenges.
His frugality is admirable but misplaced. In court, no one should have to worry that the judge isn’t sitting up straight.
This is a problem that could be solved on a Saturday afternoon by city carpenters — two are on the payroll — armed with a tape measure, a level and a saw.
Murphy acknowledges the desk requires him to be extra vigilant about maintaining a straight, seated position so he can observe all who appear before him. That extra attentiveness would be better spent on the case at hand, however, and not wasted on holding himself erect.
He has been at that too-tall desk for 10 years, which is a mistake that compounds every day he remains so far above the people expecting his best, unobstructed view of each case.
It is unreasonable to expect Murphy to maintain perfect posture at all times on the bench. The best ruling he can make today is to spend some money, or some employees’ time, to lower the desk so he is in the best possible position to ponder the life-changing decisions weighing on the courtroom’s scale.