Tribute: Justice Marian Opala, the rule of law, and American dreams

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 11-Oct-2010

Justice Marian P. Opala of the Oklahoma state Supreme Court, one of the most unforgettable men I have known, died early this morning (Monday, October 11) at the age of 89.

During his teaching career at Oklahoma City University School of Law, Opala was the favorite professor of my late father, Bruce F. McGuigan. As a high school lad, I spent memorable evenings (my father went to night school) sitting at my father’s side, listening to the wisdom of the Polish-American patriot who loved the law, and loved America with the special passion of an immigrant.

A memorable moment came after I had been in class a few times. Professor Opala turned to ask me to explain the principles of jurisprudence he has just summarized. I had listened to him (and my father) long enough that I had no trouble with the answer: “The job of the judge is to rule for the law as it actually is, not as he wishes it were.”

Always proper and old school in the classroom, Prof. Opala replied, “Mr. McGuigan, that is a perfect answer, an exact distillation of what we are learning. Let me explain further.” And then, he did.

Opala’s lectures and speeches manifested a great mind at work. Opala admired my father for earning a law degree while working as an accountant. As my father’s health failed before his death, Justice Opala often asked about him and, before her death, my mother.

Opala was a serious man who did not take himself too seriously. He was a fan of the Oklahoma City Gridiron Club and its annual fundraising roast of politicians and culture. He considered the Gridiron the exact demonstration of the vigorous protections afforded to the news media in the American constitutional system.

One year, the diminutive Opala, dressed as the Energizer Bunny with the big bass drum, walked across the stage. The Gridiron cast, in fond tribute to one of our most loyal attendees (and an annual donor to the scholarship program for aspiring journalists) chanted, “He just keeps going, and going, and going.”

Long after my days as his “student,” in our interviews, I was fascinated with discussions over law, precedent, judicial construction and the meaning of the U.S. Constitution.

His favorite modern jurists were William Rehnquist (for his sensitivity to democratic majorities) and William Brenna (for his advocacy of individual liberty). Only Marian Opala could make sense of the Rehnquist-Brennan fusion, and he did. He learned to like Clarence Thomas, the conservative jurist, after discovering their mutual fascination with the Gullah dialect of the Georgia coastlands, a lyrical tongue rooted in Africa.

Justice Marian P. Opala died this morning at 1:23 a.m. in the intensive care unit at Integris Hospital. He had entered the hospital Saturday evening (October 9) after Warr Acres police found him unconscious. He had not responded to telephone calls and knocks at the door.

According to a summary received this afternoon from the Oklahoma Press Association, “The diagnosis was that he suffered a significant stroke. He underwent surgery early Sunday morning at Integris Baptist.” Services will be later this week at All Souls Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City University President Robert Henry, formerly chief judge of the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK:

“Marian Opala was a patriot and a scholar. He launched his legal career at Oklahoma City University School of Law and rose to the very pinnacle of his profession. OCU will miss his advice, his scholarship and his trusteeship, and I will miss a friend of 34 years. Our condolences and prayers go out to his family.”

Gov. Brad Henry said, “With the passing of Justice Marian 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.  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.    

“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.”

Lt. Gov. Jari Askins reflected, “I was privileged to be a student of Justice Opala. As a teacher he challenged us to think with critical analysis and to support with reasoned opinion. He valued teaching law to others and it showed in his passion for his work. His distinguished career as a jurist spanned over 30 years.”

Askins continued, “Although his native country was Poland, he had great affection for his adopted country and the opportunities afforded him through our democracy.” She praised Opala for “his contributions to the state of Oklahoma and the legal profession.”

President Pro Temp Glenn Coffee of Oklahoma City commented, “I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Justice Marian Opala. He epitomizes the very best of public service, representing our state’s highest court with tremendous dignity and professionalism. I know many people are surprised when they learn the polite and friendly juror with a wonderful sense of humor was a part of the Polish Underground in World War II fighting for freedom.

“When he immigrated to the United States, through hard work and perseverance Marian Opala earned his second law degree at Oklahoma City University so that he could continue in the legal profession in this country.  For more than three decades he worked for the people of Oklahoma as a wise and thoughtful member of the State Supreme Court. Justice Opala will be greatly missed, but his honor, heroism and dedication will serve as an enduring legacy.”

House Speaker Chris Benge of Tulsa also praised Opala with these words: “Justice 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. That he did so in Oklahoma is a source of great pride for our state.”

Benge concluded, “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.”

Information about the good justice and his career is available here: