by Patrick B. McGuigan
In a dignified ceremony held in the state Supreme Court’s ceremonial courtroom on the second floor of the Oklahoma Capitol, Justice Tom Colbert became the first-ever black chief justice of the Oklahoma state Supreme Court.
Administering the oath was retired Oklahoma County District Judge Charles Owens – the first black judge in state history.
Members of the state High Court designated Colbert their new chief on November 8. Appointed to the court by then-Governor Brad Henry, Colbert is the first African-American to serve on the top state court, and thereby the first vice chief and “chief” in Oklahoma state history. As chief justice, Colbert succeeds Steven Taylor, also a Henry appointee. John Rief, meanwhile, assumes the position of vice chief.
Previously, Colbert served a four-year term on the Oklahoma Civil Court of Appeals, a post he garnered from then-Governor Frank Keating’s appointment. Colbert was born in Oklahoma City, but atttended high school in Sapulpa. He attended Eastern Oklahoma State College, then earned his B.S. Degree from Kentucky State. A collegiate All-American track star, Colbert served in the U.S. Army, then earned a Master of Education degree from Eastern Kentucky.
After teaching in Chicago’s public schools, Colbert received a J.D. From the University of Oklahoma Law School. After service as an assistant dean at Marquette University Law School, he returned to Oklahoma to serve as an assistant district attorney for two years, working for the late Bob Macy, who was then district attorney. After several years in private pratice, he joined the appeals court in 2000, then went to the state High Court in 2004.
Judge Owens, who administered the oath, holds his won singular place in history. The late Dewey Bartlett, governor of the Sooner State in the late 1960s, appointed Owens to a vacant county judgeship in in 1968, making him Oklahoma’s first African-American judge. Owens went on to decades of service on the Oklahoma County bench. Often unopposed for new terms, he was consistently retained on the bench with overwhelming margins when he did face opposition.
In other news, Judge David Lewis, also a black man, last week assumed the top post on the five-member Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. Lewis and Colbert were classmates at OU Law.
Within days, state Rep. T.W. Shannon of Lawton will become speaker of the state House of Representatives, making him the highest-ranking state legislator of African descent in Oklahoma history. Speaker Shannon is also a member of the Chickasaw Nation.