Oklahoma Supreme Court veteran, Marian Opala, sues "Young Turk" colleagues
The Oklahoma Constitution allows members of the Oklahoma Supreme Court to choose their own chief justice. But, under the court's internal rules, the position has rotated every two years for those justices who have served at least six years. This past November, however, the justices, other than Justice Opala, decided to change the rules. The current Chief Justice, Joseph M. Watt, was elected to a second two-year term. Under previous practices, Justice Opala was next in line for the Chief Justice seat and would have taken that position this month. Justice Opala has referred to the extension of Chief Justice Watt's term as "an almost true to fiction plot" between Watt and some of the "young Turks" on the court. (The youngest member of the Oklahoma Supreme Court is 52, and Opala's junior by about 31 years.) As a result, Justice Opala has filed suit against his colleagues in Federal Court for age discrimination.
It would be potential career suicide for me to offer my opinion on the actions of either the court or Justice Opala. However, I would like to respond to some comments of Justice Opala's critics. Deborah L. Rhode, is quoted as saying that "[t]he court has an interest in ensuring that the role is filled by someone of exemplary judgment, temperament and related capacities. These do not appear in abundant supply in this particular case." I do not know if Ms. Rhode, a teacher of legal ethics at Stanford, has ever met Justice Opala, but I have. I have had the honor of having Justice Opala as a professor in law school, and I am not sure that I can name another individual who was more in tune with the law, its history, and its majesty. I have no doubt that Justice Opala's judgment and temperament are by all standards exemplary. That being said, even Justice Opala has said that the suit is novel and would do little for the dignity of and reputation of his court, but that he believed it was necessary because judges must also obey the norms of federal, constitutional law when making their management decisions.