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Brief Filed in Case Brought by Women on Welfare : Judge Defends Ordering Mothers to Seek Jobs

Times Staff Writer

State law gives Superior Court Judge Thomas R. Murphy the authority to order mothers on welfare to look for jobs and attempt to get off the public dole, Murphy’s lawyer argued in a legal brief filed Monday.

Moreover, Murphy’s policy of issuing “job search orders” to mothers on aid is “clearly consistent” with the goal of federal and state welfare programs and is “not as sinister” as critics of the judge have suggested, attorney David A. Niddrie wrote in documents filed with a state appellate court.

For several years, Murphy, presiding judge of San Diego’s Family Court, has routinely ordered mothers on welfare who meet certain criteria to hunt for employment and get off government aid. Often, women receiving the work orders are before the judge to obtain a divorce or to compel former spouses to pay child support.

‘Complete Disregard’ of Law

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The Legal Aid Society of San Diego is challenging Murphy’s policy on grounds that it is in “complete disregard” of state and federal welfare law. The society maintains that Murphy is running his own personal “workfare” program and exceeding the jurisdiction of a judge.

Critics further argue that Murphy has improperly set extra conditions for welfare eligibility that neither the state nor federal government requires of aid recipients. Although state guidelines allow women with children under 6 to remain at home and not work for their welfare checks, Murphy orders any woman capable of holding a job to get one once her child turns 2 or is toilet-trained.

The society, which is challenging Murphy on behalf of five women who received his job-search orders, has asked the 4th District Court of Appeal to declare the judge’s program illegal and order it abolished.

On Monday, Niddrie fired back with a 61-page brief urging the court to reject the society’s claims. For starters, Niddrie noted that state law obligates parents to provide for the raising of their children to the “full extent of their ability.” Parents on welfare may not be meeting that obligation merely by collecting a government check, he argued.

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“A parent’s duty of support does not necessarily end with furnishing of mere necessities,” Niddrie wrote. It is Murphy’s role as a family law judge, Niddrie wrote, to evaluate a family’s situation and decide whether job search orders are “in the best interest of the children.”

Don’t Have Right Not to Work

Niddrie also disputed the society’s claim that aid recipients with young children have a “federally protected” right not to work.

“The pursuit of higher education and/or a parent’s desire to provide full-time care for his or her child--while laudable goals--are not sufficient to overcome the parent’s obligation to provide immediate financial support for the child,” he argued.

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Also challenged by Niddrie is the society’s argument that the work program conflicts with state and federal welfare law. The job search orders are “clearly consistent with the basic purpose of AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children)--which is to provide aid to needy children ‘except when there is a breadwinner in the home who could be expected to provide such aid himself,’ ” Niddrie wrote.

Aside from debating the legal issues, Niddrie said the appeal court should deny the challenge because the society failed to provide a sufficient record of the five women’s cases, including a transcript of court proceedings. The justices are therefore forced to rely on “bald allegations” of fact from attorneys in evaluating the case.

Niddrie also argued that the society’s petition to the court, an unusual request for “extraordinary relief,” is inappropriate because the five women had other remedies: They could have appealed their job search orders individually in court or asked for a hearing before welfare administrators.

Murphy, 52, was appointed to the El Cajon Municipal Court by then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. in July, 1980. Five years later, Gov. George Deukmejian elevated him to Superior Court.

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The Legal Aid Society has a week to file a response to Niddrie’s arguments. The court will then consider the filings and make a decision.


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