Chatfield lawyer appointed judge in Third Judicial District
Thursday, May 09, 2013 6:22 PM
The vacancy in the Third Judicial District Court was recently filled by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, who appointed Chatfield lawyer Matthew J. Opat to the office.
The decision came down from the Governor's office on Friday, May 3, after an application and interview process.
According to the statement from the governor, "Matthew Opat has been an exemplary public servant throughout his career. I believe that his experience and passion for the law will help him to honorably serve the people of the Third District."
The appointment came after the recent retirement of the Honorable Robert Benson.
Opat, 60, has served in the Chatfield and Fillmore County regions for around 35 years. He grew up across the border in Lime Springs and was familiar with the area.
Opat said he always seemed to have an interest in law when he was younger. "My mother tells me I watched Perry Mason and decided to be a lawyer from that," he shared, adding that he wasn't sure if that was true.
"Just the ability of helping others appealed to me," said Opat.
In any case, he entered the pre-law program at the University of Iowa and graduated in 1974. From there, he went to law school at Hamline University School of Law and graduated with his juris doctorate in 1977.
It would be a very busy and eventful year for Opat. He took and passed the bar exam, married his then fiancée, Therese, and they moved to Chatfield where he had found a job working with attorney Marvin Ohlrogg.
Moving back to a rural area was always a part of Opat's life plan. "I expected that I would stay in Chatfield," he shared. "It was a perfect place to practice."
His expertise in real estate, probate, business and agriculture law, enabled him to help many different people.
"In a rural community, you need to understand agriculture and the law, so it was good to have a working knowledge of it. In a metro area, you would never have faced those issues," Opat stated.
Beside his full-time private practice, which became his own after Ohlrogg retired, Opat also served at the county level. He became the assistant county attorney to Robert Benson in 1981.
In that capacity, he learned a lot about misdemeanors, petty misdemeanors and juvenile casework. He served part-time for 16 years until Benson became a judge for the Third District Court. Then, he was appointed as the county attorney, ran for another term and served for four more years.
From that experience, he said he was responsible for all felony and appellant cases as well as to provide legal advice to the county.
"It was different work from my private practice," he shared. "It took a lot of hard work and drive with many nights and weekends spent to get it all in."
Opat credited the work ethic he learned on the farm with helping him.
He will take his wide variety of experiences with him to the bench. Opat shared that he has had the opportunity to both prosecute and defend in the court, which he feels will serve him well.
Part of the advantage of being in the county attorney's office, he claimed, was being able to see what was important and what was going on in the court.
"I was comfortable in court. It probably was something that piqued my interest," he shared about when he decided becoming a judge was a goal of his.
Opat said he was able to listen to all sides and work on bringing about a resolution to problems through his work.
Having worked with victims and witnesses in his county job and clients in his private practice, Opat feels he has a range of experiences that will help him.
Twenty years ago, Opat had applied for judge openings in Houston County, but was not appointed.
"I've had the privilege of practicing for 35 years, but I was looking for a new challenge," he shared.
After Benson's retirement, it was up to the governor whether or not the vacancy would be filled. Since he declared that it should, an application acceptance period was opened.
Opat was one of 24 applicants to the position. Based upon an application review by a statewide judicial selection committee, Opat was recommended to be interviewed by the committee.
After completing that interview, he was called back to have an interview with the governor and his council on April 30.
During that interview, Opat was asked what his experience was and how he felt it would help him serve as a judge.
He was notified on May 2 that he had been appointed to the bench.
"I'm going in with my eyes wide open," explained Opat. "I'm anxious to get started and get used to the experience."
Opat said he didn't know when he would be sworn in and when he is, he might not immediately serve on the bench. He would "shadow" another judge to gain additional experience.
Although Opat will mainly serve and work on cases within Fillmore County, the Third Judicial District covers Dodge, Freeborn, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Rice, Steele, Wabasha, Waseca and Winona counties. Opat could find himself serving those counties to some extent as well.
"I'm excited and looking forward to taking on the role of judge in the Third District and Fillmore County, and I will do the best job that I can," he shared.
There will be some challenges facing Opat. It is unclear if he will face an increased workload. It may affect his ability to participate in the community, which has been a priority of his since moving to Chatfield.
He has served on the Chatfield Center for the Arts Advisory Committee, the Chatfield Lions Club, the Chatfield Commercial Club and is a retired member of the Chatfield Volunteer Fire Department, among other organizations.
"I've always believed in public service and being involved has fit that need for me," shared Opat. "It's helped me to meet new people and know what their concerns are."
Stepping into the judge role will also be difficult. "The judge has to make decisions that must be made. He must have control of the court room and make sure the people get their side heard," he said.
One thing Opat has considered is the fact that he may never be able to step out of the judge role ever again.
"People watch you to see what you are doing. It's the same thing that applies to anyone in public office," he explained. "You are under that scrutiny, but it's a part of the job."
Through it all, Opat said he will work hard to hear both sides and to make decisions both fair and impartial.
Becoming a judge has fulfilled one of Opat's goals. "I've put in a lot of hard work and years. This seems to be the pinnacle of a career: becoming a judge. We'll see where this one goes. I'm always aspiring to other things."
Opat has received full support from his wife and family. Therese actually worked as his secretary and bookkeeper in his Chatfield office for 30 years. They have two sons, Michael and Steven, and a daughter, Kristin.
In his spare time, Opat enjoys hunting, fishing and maintaining a small farm tractor collection of Farmalls, which is what he grew up with.
From the farm to the bench, Opat intends to continue to work hard for the people.