Oklahoma's first black chief justice stresses importance of role models

Hundreds attended the historic swearing-in ceremony at the Oklahoma Capitol.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Published: January 4, 2013
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Tom Colbert, sworn in as chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court the same week America was commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, recalled Friday the sacrifices that family members and others made for him to attain that position.

Colbert, appointed to the Supreme Court in 2004, told hundreds that came to watch him take office as chief justice, how his grandfather and mother provided him encouragement to overcome a high school guidance counselor's assertion that he was unfit for college.

“That's why we need role models,” Colbert, 63, said. “I was very blessed to have a mother and grandparents that even though you were discouraged they promoted and pushed and encouraged you to continue on, knowing that was the only way that you're going to break the chains of poverty.

“That's what concerns me today is that a lot of these young kids out here don't have grandparents that are in a position to encourage them when they are told something or they run into a situation that they don't feel like they have a way out,” he said.

A large crowd, which included judges, attorneys, friends and family members, spilled out from the ceremonial Supreme Court courtroom into the hallway and rotunda of the state Capitol to witness the historic swearing-in ceremony.

Among those was former Gov. Brad Henry, who appointed Colbert to the Supreme Court, making him the first black member on the high court.

“I saw a great person who would be a great justice,” Henry said. “It wasn't about making history. It was about appointing the best person, and he was the best applicant that I interviewed.

“I'm obviously very, very proud of Chief Justice Colbert and all that he's accomplished. He makes all of us Oklahomans proud.”

Retired Oklahoma County District Judge Charles Owens, the first black judge in Oklahoma when he was appointed by then-Gov. Dewey Bartlett to the post in 1968, issued the oath of office to Colbert.

Colbert, who had served the past two years as vice chief, then swore in Justice John Rief as vice chief.

Colbert revealed to onlookers he considered resigning the post twice, once to be considered for a federal judgeship and the other to consider an offer in private practice. Both times, his mother and his wife told him that he owed it to those who struggled for civil rights before him to remain and eventually become chief justice.

“They were right,” he said.

“Here I am on the doorstep of making it to the next level, and it would be very selfish for me to worry about my own opportunities when someone else may never get the opportunity to stand where I'm standing, being a minority.”

The nine justices vote on selecting a chief justice every two years.

The chief justice is the key administrator of the court's many functions.

Justices voted in November to elect Colbert as the high court's chief justice. He succeeds Justice Steven Taylor.

An interesting time

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