SJC: Former Superior Court Judge Ernest B. Murphy is not entitled to disability pension

A former Superior Court judge, who won a multimillion dollar libel suit against the Boston Herald, does not qualify for a disability pension because he could not prove that he was handling judicial tasks when he received a written death threat, the state’s highest court ruled today.

In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court said former Superior Court Judge Ernest B. Murphy was properly denied a disability pension by the state’s Contributory Retirement Appeal Board.

Writing for the SJC, Justice Francis X. Spina said that under state retirement law and earlier SJC rulings, Murphy had a legal burden to prove that he was performing some task related to his job as a judge when he read the death threat.

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“Judge Murphy has not presented any evidence to support a conclusion that he sustained a personal injury during the performance of his judicial duties,’’ Spina wrote.

According to the SJC, Murphy was appointed to the court in 2000 and became the subject of coverage by Boston Herald reporter Dave Wedge that was “sharply critical of Judge Murphy’s performance of his judicial duties.’’

Murphy, according to the SJC, subsequently received hate mail, death threats, and “threats of violence directed at his family’’ and for a time received protection from State Police, especially after a copy of the Herald containing his photograph was slipped under the door of his judicial office with a bullet hole drawn on his forehead.

Murphy was diagnosed by his psychiatrist with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression as a result, and was diagnosed by other doctors with a variety of physical ailments.

He sued the Herald for libel and won a multimillion dollar slander judgment, which was eventually paid by the newspaper. Murphy was also sanctioned by the Commission on Judicial Conduct for sending a letter on court stationery to Herald Publisher Patrick Purcell to settle the case before appeals.

In 2007, Murphy sought a disability pension, but was eventually denied the pension by Contributory Retirement Appeal Board because it concluded the Herald stories and the death threat contributed to his poor mental and physical conditions, but were not the “proximate cause” of his disabled condition.

Today, the SJC sided with retirement board and against Murphy.

”We examine the evidence from two perspectives—whether Judge Murphy was engaged in judicial work (such as preparing for a trial, doing legal research, or the like) during the time that he opened and read the death threat, and whether the act of opening and reading his mail was, in itself, a judicial duty,’’ Spina wrote.

“Assuming that Judge Murphy read this death threat in his chambers, there was no evidence whatsoever as to what he was doing when he opened and read it. The mere fact that an employee is in his office during regular work hours does not necessarily mean that the employee’’ is working as defined by the law, Spina wrote.

In this instance, the SJC said, Murphy failed to prove his claim.

“It was incumbent on Judge Murphy to present evidence to show that at the time he sustained his personal injury, he was engaged ‘in the performance of’ his judicial duties’’ under state law. “He simply did not satisfy this burden of proof.’’