Written by Dick Pryor on Tuesday January 19, 2010
Marian Opala is small in height, but not in stature. He has been a fixture at the state Capitol for more than forty years, as Supreme Court referee, staff lawyer, Administrator of the Courts, judge of the Industrial Court, and justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Anybody who has spent any time at the Capitol has probably met Justice Opala. He is charming and respectful, with an engaging wit, keen intellect and obvious love of the law. But to see him "only" as a judge or lawyer, misses the bigger story of Marian Opala.
Born in Lodz, Poland in 1921, he was forced into public service when the Nazi army invaded Poland in 1939. The September, 1939 offensive resulted in the partition of Poland between the Soviet Union and Germany and prompted the start of World War II. While still in his teens, Opala was stuck between Stalin and Hitler, with his homeland in shambles. What he did in response will probably surprise you.
Following the war, Opala left Europe to forge a new life in the United States. It's a uniquely American story, as Opala settled in, of all places, Oklahoma, and attended Oklahoma City University. He graduated from the Oklahoma City University School of Law in 1953, the same year he became an American citizen.
Opala earned a degree in economics from OCU in 1957 and a master of law degree from New York University School of Law in 1968. His career trajectory took him from lawyer to Supreme Court referee to staff lawyer for Justice Rooney McInerney.
Justice Opala was chosen to lead the reform of the Oklahoma judicial system following the judicial scandal of the 1960's. One Supreme Court justice was imprisoned for tax evasion and another was impeached on charges of bribery and corruption. Justice Opala told me about the need to implement a reorganization of the state's judiciary to allow the people of Oklahoma and members of the legal profession to regain confidence in the system.
Time Magazine presented a summary of the scandal in its April 16, 1965 issue.
His work as Court Administrator obviously caught the eye of Oklahoma's governor, David Boren, who appointed Opala to the state Supreme Court in 1978. He has served as a justice ever since, rising to the position of Chief Justice in 1991 and 1992. Justice Opala was scheduled to become Chief Justice again in November, 2004. However, the other justices on the Court changed the succession rules, denying Opala the position and, in a break from tradition, allowing the sitting Chief Justice, Joseph M. Watt, to succeed himself.
Opala sued his colleagues, claiming that the new rule was unconstitutional and the change was based on age. At the time, Opala was 83, the oldest member of the Court. Justice Opala did not prevail on his age discrimination lawsuit, but has continued to serve on the court. In our interview, he discussed his reasoning for suing his colleagues and how it affected his relationship with his fellow judges.
Justice Opala also discussed his love for the law, especially the First Amendment, and what his experiences during World War II did to shape him and create a strong belief in the American legal system. There were laughs and tears as Justice Opala told his own, very personal story of the American Dream.
Thanks for reading, and thank you for watching "A Conversation With...Marian Opala."
Until next time,