Diana E. Murphy, the first woman appointed to the bench of the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the only woman to serve on that bench for 19 years, died late Wednesday afternoon at her home in Minneapolis. She was 84.
Murphy was a tireless advocate for education, champion for women lawyers and judges and a civic powerhouse.
She had taken senior judge status on the Eighth Circuit in 2016 — a form of semiretirement for judges, but continued to work through April.
She planned to fully retire effective in July. She suffered from long-term health problems, including heart and rheumatoid arthritis, her family said Wednesday night.
Murphy's landmark cases as a federal judge spanned from corporations to American Indian tribal treaties. She counted justices of the U.S. Supreme Court and Minnesota Supreme Court among her friends, mentors and mentees.
Murphy also had great influence as chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission from 1999 to 2004.
In a letter to Murphy in April, Eighth Circuit Judge Roger Wollman wrote, "It has been a great honor to serve with you, Diana … I will always remember your great sense of humor and calm-inducing personality and marvel and envy your prodigious capacity for work."
But her original life course was not to be a judge or even a lawyer but rather history, her family said.
She graduated from St. Paul Central High School at age 16 and headed to the University of Minnesota, where she majored in Central European Area Studies. She went on to win a Fulbright scholarship for graduate school to study at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, where she met her husband, Joseph Murphy. After getting married, she stayed home to raise their two sons.
In 1971, she returned to study law at the University of Minnesota, where she was editor of the Law Review. She worked as a litigator for the firm of Lindquist and Vennum before becoming a judge in Hennepin County Municipal Court, then District Court from 1976 to 1980.
She was appointed a federal judge for the district of Minnesota in 1980 and to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1994. She was the only woman on that federal appellate bench until 2013.
"She was very dedicated to education and took great pride in mentoring her law clerks during the 38 years as a federal judge," said her son, John Murphy of North Oaks. Among those mentees was Margaret Chutich, now an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Murphy was chair of the University of Minnesota Foundation, the University of St. Thomas Board of Trustees and heavily involved in numerous other civic organizations.
Besides John, survivors include a son Michael of Duluth; her sister, Brenda Montomura of San Francisco, and two granddaughters.
Services are pending.