Oklahoma State Supreme Court Justice Marian Opala Dies

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Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Marian Opala has died.

Opala, who had served on the state court since 1978, died early Monday morning, said Mike Mayberry, deputy director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Mayberry said Opala died at Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City at 1:23 a.m. Monday. Mayberry said Opala was found unconscious at his Warr Acres home Saturday evening and was taken by ambulance to the hospital.

"The diagnosis was that he suffered a significant stroke," Mayberry said. "He underwent surgery early Sunday morning."

Friends of the 89-year-old justice said Opala was in good spirits late last week.

"I had dinner with him late Friday and he said he'd never felt better," said Oklahoma County Assessor Leonard Sullivan. "When my wife told me he'd died of a stroke, I was shocked. He seemed just fine Friday."

Known for his wit and scholarship, Opala was often the lone dissent on the state's highest court. In 2005, Opala filed suit against his fellow justices after the group voted to bypass him as chief justice of the court.

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. However, in November of 2005 the court's other eight justices changed the rules to allow Justice Joseph M. Watt to serve a second consecutive term as chief justice, succeeding himself.

Opala, who was 83 at the time, would have been the next to serve as chief justice under the rotation. He filed a lawsuit in federal district court, charging that his fellow justices discriminated against him based on his age.

"I sued to establish a constitutional principle," Opala told The Journal Record in 2005. "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?"

Opala lost the lawsuit after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

He was appointed to the court in 1978 by then-Gov. David Boren.

Born in Lodz, Poland, in 1921, Opala immigrated to the United States, becoming a citizen in 1953. He graduated from Oklahoma City University's School of Law that same year, and earned a degree in economics from OCU in 1957. He earned a master of laws degree from New York University in 1968.

Opala held the court's District 3 seat. He served as chief justice of the court from 1991 to 1992.

State leaders praised Opala, calling him a professional and dedicated jurist.

"With the passing of Justice Marian Opala, Oklahoma has lost a judicial giant," Oklahoma Gov. Brad 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. …