Justice Marian Opala, RIP

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Marian Opala, associate justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, has died at the age of 89. He will be missed.

Opala was born in Poland, fought against Germany in the Polish Army and the Resistance, captured in the Warsaw Uprising, and imprisoned in Flossenburg Concentration Camp. After the camp was liberated, Opala met an Army captain from Oklahoma, who encouraged him to come to the US. He studied law at OCU and NYU, served as administrative director for the Oklahoma State Court system for 9 years, and as a worker's compensation judge for a year. Gov. David Boren appointed him to the State Supreme Court in 1978.

Opala's commitment to freedom, forged in the face of Nazi oppression, expressed itself throughout his years on the Supreme Court. In 2002, Freedom of Information Oklahoma named its annual 1st Amendment award in his honor:

The author of numerous legal papers, Opala is an adjunct professor in three law schools, a frequent lecturer at various national judicial and legal education programs and was recipient of the 1997 Oklahoma Bar Association's Award for Judicial Excellence.

In 2006, the State Supreme Court voted to uphold a referee's decision to toss out the Taxpayer Bill of Rights petition. The case was not heard by the Supreme Court; only Opala raised a protest. At the time I wrote:

In July [2006], the Supreme Court voted to strike down the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) petition for an inadequate number of signatures.

Although TABOR's backers gathered 80,000 more signatures than were required, the Court's referee claimed that 81,000 signatures were gathered by circulators who were not "qualified electors," a term that refers to any adult residing in the state of Oklahoma, whether registered to vote or not. The Supreme Court affirmed the referee's assertions without hearing oral arguments from the petition's supporters.

Whether a professional circulator living in a motel room should count as a qualified elector is a matter for the Legislature to address. The law doesn't specify a requirement for length of residency or quality of housing. Whether TABOR is a good idea or not, the Supreme Court should have taken up the issue and heard arguments for both sides, rather than letting a referee make the decision.

Only Marian Opala, out of the nine justices, insisted that the proponents of the petition be given their day in court.

The decision is suspicious in light of the fact that the same company, National Voter Outreach, had circulated nearly every successful initiative petition in Oklahoma in recent years, including anti-cockfighting and gasoline tax initiatives. NVO's procedures had never before been invalidated. The Court effectively changed the rules in the middle of the game.

The difference, in this case, is that the same powerful business groups who supported the gas tax hike oppose TABOR. The right to initiative petition was enshrined in our state constitution to allow the voters to bypass a legislature in thrall to entrenched special interests. This ruling sends the message to the 300,000 Oklahoma voters who signed the TABOR petition is that you have that right only as long as the entrenched special interests don't object.

As our only resort against this trampling of the state constitution, Oklahomans should vote to keep Justice Marian Opala and to get rid of the rest.

Opala served a brief term as Chief Justice in the early 1990s. In 2005, when it was his turn in the rotation, the other eight justices changed the rules to allow the then-Chief Justice to continue for an unprecedented second term. Opala filed a federal suit, which was ultimately unsuccessful. At the time, Opala explained to the Journal Record his passion for the law:

"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?"

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 11, 2010 2:29 PM.

"Save Our Tulsa for our kind, dahling" was the previous entry in this blog.

Rich old SOTs: Who is "Save Our Tulsa"? is the next entry in this blog.

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