Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Marian Opala died early this morning, October 11, at his home in Warr Acres. This man had a small frame, shorter than even my 5′ 7″ height, but he was a giant in the Oklahoma legal community, widely respected among Oklahoma lawyers, probably more than any other member of the Oklahoma Supreme Court in my brief time as a lawyer (1968-present). But he was also a humble man, one who never presumed that he was superior to any other man or woman; he loved America; and he loved his profession and enjoyed mingling with the lawyers who made it up, for no other reason than just doing it and the satisfaction that it gave him in doing so.
While I still had an office downtown, it was not uncommon at all to see him on Harvey east of the Oklahoma County Courthouse, or inside of it, just being there and commensurating with his brothers and sisters in and about the law. Never boastful or ego-driven, but always of the sharpest and keenest legal mind, amongst all of his peers, he is the Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice who will be most sorely missed at both a personal and professional level.
I was not a personal friend so I cannot speak from that perspective. I did enjoy those occasional Harvey Street conversations, though, and I am familiar with many of his written opinions while serving as an Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice, and I am well aware that my opinion of Justice Opala is nearly altogether if not universally shared by my peers. For the remainder of this article, I will simply quote what others have said about him on this, the day of his death.
|The Journal Record, October 11, 2010:
State Supreme Court Justice Marian Opala dies
By M. Scott Carter
OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Marian Opala has died.
Opala, 89, died Sunday evening, said Mike Mayberry, deputy director of the Administrative Office of the Courts. Opala – who held the courts’ District 3 seat – had previously served as Chief Justice of the court from 1991 to 1992. He was appointed to the court in 1978 by then-Governor David Boren.
Born in Lodz, Poland in 1921, Opala became a United States citizen in 1953. He graduated from Oklahoma City University’s School of Law in 1953, and later, earned as BSB degree in economics from OCU in 1957. He earned a Master of Laws degree from New York University in 1968.
Governor Brad Henry praised Opala, calling him a professional and dedicated jurist.
“With the passing of Justice Marian Opala, Oklahoma has lost a judicial giant,” Henry said in a media statement. “During his many decades of service to this state, Justice Opala was always a consummate professional and a dedicated jurist. With his hard work, legal expertise and passion for the law and public service, Marian Opala helped make Oklahoma a far better place than it was when he first arrived here as an immigrant many years ago.”
Oklahomans, the governor said, will miss the justice.
“We are saddened by Justice Opala’s passing and will miss him very much, but we will never forget his lifetime of service or his love of this great state. Our thoughts and prayers are with Justice Opala’s family and his many friends.”
Outgoing House Speaker Chris Benge said Opala’s life “proved the continuing reality of the American Dream.”
“As an immigrant to the United States, he rose to the highest ranks of our legal profession,” Benge, R-Tulsa said. “That he did so in Oklahoma is a source of great pride for our state. From his days fighting Nazis as part of the Polish underground to his work on the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Justice Opala’s life was committed to justice. He was a remarkable man who leaves a remarkable legacy.”
Opala began his legal career as assistant county attorney in Oklahoma County; he entered private law practice in 1956 and served as a referee for the state Supreme Court from 1960 to 1965. From 1969 to 1977, Opala was the court’s first administrative director.
|Okla. Supreme Court justice Marian Opala dies
SEAN MURPHY, Associated Press Writer
Published: 10:35 a.m., Monday, October 11, 2010
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Marian Opala, a Polish immigrant who served for more than three decades on Oklahoma’s Supreme Court, has died. He was 89.
Opala died about 1:30 a.m. Monday at an Oklahoma City hospital after suffering a stroke over the weekend, said Mike Mayberry, an official with the Oklahoma Administrative Office of the Courts.
Police discovered Opala unconscious at his Warr Acres home Saturday after he didn’t respond to telephone calls and knocks to his door, Mayberry said. He underwent surgery Sunday.
The vacancy left by Opala’s death could provide outgoing Gov. Brad Henry a sixth appointment to the nine-member court, if the process is completed before his term ends in January. Henry, a Democrat, is expected to name a fifth appointment when he receives three nominations to replace retiring Justice Rudolph Hargrave.
Born in Lodz, Poland, in 1921, Opala joined that country’s resistance movement against German occupiers during World War II. He was captured and imprisoned by the Nazis before being liberated by members of Oklahoma’s 45th Infantry Brigade.
Opala emigrated to the United States in 1949 and became a citizen in 1953. After a legal career that included stints as the director of the state’s court system and a member of the Workers’ Compensation Court, Opala became the first foreign-born member of the state’s highest court when he was appointed in 1978 by then-Gov. David Boren. Voters approved Opala in 1980 for the remainder of his predecessor’s term and retained him for six-year terms in 1982, 1988, 1994, 2000 and 2006.
“Oklahoma has lost a judicial giant,” Henry said in a statement. “With his hard work, legal expertise and passion for the law and public service, Marion Opala helped make Oklahoma a far better place than it was when he first arrived here as an immigrant many years ago.”
Opala served as the court’s chief justice in 1991 and 1992. In 2004, he was vice chief justice when his colleagues approved a rule change that for the first time made it possible for the sitting chief justice to succeed himself for another two-year term.
The previous rule historically called for the vice chief justice to succeed the chief justice. Opala filed a lawsuit arguing the rule change before he would have again ascended to the top spot violated his rights to due process and equal protection. The case eventually was dismissed when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider it.
“The figures told me that my chance would be microscopic,” Opala said in 2006. “But I had to do it because I felt that I had a just cause.”
Current Chief Justice James Edmondson described Opala as a “magnificent man with a shining intellect, a great sense of humor and an indomitable spirit.”
Oklahoma City University President Robert Henry, a former judge with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who was friends with Opala for more than 30 years, described him as a “consummate gentleman.”
“He knew more law than anyone I have ever known,” Robert Henry said. “He had a Polish accent, but he spoke slowly and precisely, almost as if the sentences just sprang out fully formed.
“I also think he represented the American dream. He rose from a poor immigrant to chief justice of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma and an internationally known legal expert.”
In a quote Opala provided for his Oklahoma Hall of Fame induction ceremony, he said: “My life is devoted to the service of others. As long as I am physically and mentally able I will devote my life to God, the people of Oklahoma, and the noble profession of law.”
|Oklahoman, October 11, 2010
Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Marian Opala has died
Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Marian Opala has died, a court administrator confirmed this morning.
FROM STAFF REPORTS Oklahoman
Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Marian Opala has died.
Mike Mayberry, deputy court administrator for the administrative office of the courts, confirmed Opala, 89, has died but said he had no other details.
Opala had been a justice on the Supreme Court since 1978. He came to Oklahoma in 1949 and was a renowned legal scholar, having taught at several Oklahoma colleges. He received many awards for judicial excellence.
Opala was born on Jan. 20, 1921, in Lodz, Poland. He had just enrolled in law school when Nazi Germany invaded his homeland in 1939.
He joined the Polish underground and later was a prisoner of war. He emigrated to the United States at war’s end and attended Oklahoma City University, receiving a law degree in 1953, the year he attained U.S. citizenship. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from OCU and a master’s degree in law from New York University.
After service as assistant district attorney for Oklahoma County and private practice, he served on the Oklahoma Supreme Court staff and was the first administrative director of the state court system. He also served on the State Industrial Court and on the Workers’ Compensation Court.
First appointed to the Supreme Court in November 1978 by Gov. David Boren, he was elected and re-elected to that position through the 20th Century. The only foreign-born member of the court, Opala served as chief justice in 1991-92. He taught law at OCU, University of Oklahoma, and University of Tulsa. One of his main interests remained First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. He received the Herbert Harley Award from the American Judicature Society in 1977. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 2000, and Freedom of Information, Inc., of Oklahoma, established the Marian Opala Award in 2002.
|Okahoman, October 11, 2010
Officials react to death of Justice Marian Opala
Former Gov. George Nigh and others reacted this morning to the news that Supreme Court Justice Marian Opala has died.
FROM STAFF REPORTS Oklahoman
Gov. Brad Henry said that with the death of state Supreme Court Justice Marion Opala, Oklahoma has lost “a judicial giant.”
“During his many decades of service to this state, Justice Opala was always a consummate professional and a dedicated jurist,” Henry said in a statement released this morning. “With his hard work, legal expertise and passion for the law and public service, Marion Opala helped make Oklahoma a far better place than it was when he first arrived here as an immigrant many years ago.”
Bob Blackburn, director of the Oklahoma Historical Society: “It was always a highlight on my calendar to know that I was going to have lunch or a meeting with Justice Opala. You would have to schedule breakfast or lunch with him months in advance because he was in such demand. He was a master at conversation, full of wit and with a life story that sounds like a John Ford movie. He was a very charming man. Justice Opala represents the spirit of Oklahoma. He was thankful for the opportunities received when he got here, he had open arms for others and he was an optimist thinking that tomorrow will be better than today.”
Former Gov. George Nigh: “He was a very decent man. Not only was he was interested in the court, but he was interested in serving the community. I think he brought an awareness that regardless from where you came you had the opportunity to serve. Here’s a case of a guy from Poland serving on the Oklahoma Supreme Court.”
Unfortunately, Justice Opala came to be less in favor by his peers on the Oklahoma Supreme Court. He was in rotation to become Chief Justice again in 2005 but his peers broke their own precedent without his participation and refused to appoint him, and that led to Justice Opala to file age discrimination litigation in federal court. Although the litigation failed, the Oklahoma lawyers that I know almost if not altogether felt that Opala was, shall we say, stabbed in the back, by his fellow Supreme Court members. A Journal Record article alluded to in the 1st article posted here, above, read this way:
|Journal Record, January 24, 2005
Okla. Supreme Court Justice Marian Opala talks about his suit
Journal Record, The (Oklahoma City), Jan 24, 2005 by Janice Francis-Smith
Justice Marian Opala knew his lawsuit would surprise a lot of people. After all, it’s not every day a judge sues his fellow justices on the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
But he did expect those in the legal profession to understand his motivation.
I sued to establish a constitutional principle, said Opala. There’s no evil or unethical ingredient in a lawyer wanting to establish a constitutional principle. No one in total control of one’s faculties would accuse a lawyer of being unethical for wanting to establish a constitutional principle, do you agree?
For several years, Oklahoma Supreme Court justices with more than six years’ experience have each taken their turn as chief justice, serving a two-year term in the top post. Opala last served as chief justice from 1991 to 1992.
In November, the other eight justices on the Supreme Court changed the rules to allow Justice Joseph M. Watt to serve a second consecutive term as chief justice, succeeding himself. Opala, who would have been the next to serve as chief justice under the rotation, called the rule change unprecedented.
He filed a lawsuit in federal district court, charging his fellow justices discriminated against him based on his age. Opala is 83 years old. The youngest justice on the court is 52 years old.
Opala speaks slowly and clearly, as one would expect from an adjunct professor to three of Oklahoma’s law schools. His faint foreign accent is difficult to place because it’s actually a convergence of my native Polish, my acquired British and acquired Okie, he said.
He came to Oklahoma in 1949 and became a U.S. citizen in 1953, the same year he graduated from Oklahoma City University School of Law. In 1957, he earned an economics degree from OCU, and in 1968 earned his master of law degree from New York University School of Law.
In addition to the many honors awarded Opala over the years, the Oklahoma Bar Association and Freedom of Information Oklahoma have each named one of their annual awards after him.
The fact that I was born 20,000 miles away from here does not make me less or more human or different, he said, noting that he and one of his colleagues born in rural Oklahoma nearly always voted alike.
However, Opala did concede that his history has contributed to his passion for the law, even to the point of filing a lawsuit against the justices he works alongside every day.
Judges owe their utmost allegiance to the majesty of the law and not to institutional interests, said Opala. I’m very much committed and in love with this nation’s constitutional order. That’s what fires me up. – We protect everybody. We protect the government from abuse by individuals, we protect the individual from abuse by the government, and we protect corporations from abuse by both. That’s our system: protect everybody, not just some people. And that’s the job I love.
When I grew up, I was not protected by a constitutional order such as ours, said Opala. I grew up between Hitler and Stalin, neither of whom cared about the law. That’s the reason for my passion for the orderly process of law. Who else but a foreigner would have that passion?
What other Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice than Marian Opala would have had the backbone to file litigation against his peers who denied him his rightful office? I challenge anyone, lawyer or lay person, to name just one.
For other information, see Michael Bates’ Batesline and this Wikipedia article. There is much more that could be said about this extraordinary member of the Oklahoma Supreme Court but the above should be sufficient for now … that, and to note that none of the praise noted above which was forthcoming in today’s press came from a sitting member of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, even on the occasion of the death of this Oklahoma giant … that omission, as lawyers and judges would say, “is duly noted.” The day after, on October 12, some kind remarks were forthcoming.