I have a short list of heroes, but Justice Marian Opala made the cut with me a long time ago. Justice Opala died Oct. 11 at the age of 89 after 32 years of service as an Oklahoma Supreme Court justice. His life’s work was the law, carried out with a degree of precision and passion not often seen in a jurist.
Opala was born the son of a banker in Lodz, Poland. He was 18 when the Nazis invaded his country in 1939. His family fled, and Opala joined the Polish resistance, destroying railroads used for German troop transports. But because he could speak English, his services as a translator were badly needed elsewhere, especially in the Polish army under British command, so he left Poland.
Opala escaped through Bulgaria and then into Turkey, where he was welcomed by the Polish consulate in Istanbul and drafted into the Polish army. After working as a translator for the Brits in London, Opala parachuted back into Poland in 1944. There he fought with the Polish underground until his British unit was captured by the Germans during the Warsaw Uprising. He was a prisoner of war when the Nazis ran in the face of advancing Allied troops. He had survived.
Returning to London, Opala was befriended by Oklahoman Gene Warr, who sponsored his emigration to the United States ” and to Oklahoma. Opala studied law at Oklahoma City University then went on to New York University for a master’s degree. In 1978, Governor David L. Boren appointed him to the Supreme Court.
The function of the Supreme Court is to review rulings of lower courts, chiefly the Court of Civil Appeals and the District Courts. Supreme Court justices take turns writing opinions reflecting the majority decision of the Court. Justice Opala’s opinions were distinctive in several respects, a matter mostly unknown to the public at large, but of considerable significance to lawyers.
First, Opala had a masterful command of the English language. His opinions speak with clarity and certainty. They fairly sing with citations to ancient common law and Latin phrases reflective of our Anglo-American jurisprudential history.
Second, Opala often focused on clarification of murky or ambiguous legal doctrines. With surgeon-like precision, he once explained the fine distinction between intervening cause and supervening cause. In another case, he traced the history of common law marriage back to the canon law of the 12th century, reminding that such unions are a matter of contract entered into with words spoken per verba de praesenti (in the present tense).
Opala’s devotion to our state and federal constitutions was unwavering. He regarded his job as a guardian, tasked with securing the liberties those organic documents guarantee. His allegiance to the rule of law was passionate, and with good reason. Few of us know firsthand what happens when the rule of law is extinguished at the end of a gun, but Marian Opala knew.
To the end of his days, Opala remained a lecturer, teacher and a friend of the bar. He enjoyed the company of other lawyers. He was sociable, a true continental gentleman who loved parties, events and celebrations. He had his detractors (most great men do) who complained of his stubbornness and his irascibility. As for me, I choose my heroes by the totality of their craft and art, not by their quirks and foibles, and by this measure, Opala soared.
Yes, I have a short list of heroes. Many of them are from the great generation of which Marian Opala was so much a part. The claws of time are scratching them away from us, inexorably. It is vital not only that we honor and remember these people, but that we continue to take our lessons from them. The opinions of Justice Opala abide.
Requiescat in pace, Mr. Justice.
Groves is a practicing attorney in Oklahoma City.