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[Blog] Serving Justice

blog Apr 20, 2022

            At age 16, while attending a youth camp in the Arbuckle Mountains of his native Oklahoma, Dustin Rowe felt God call him to a life of public service. Two years later, when most high school seniors' minds entertain thoughts of proms and college prospects, Rowe became the state's youngest mayor.

            Once the capital of the Chickasaw Nation, Rowe’s hometown of Tishomongo boasts a 2021 population of barely more than 3,000. But the position still carried serious responsibilities for a student to bear. However, today—27 years later—Rowe’s duties are considerably weightier as he serves as one of nine justices on the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

            “I knew I would serve in government in some capacity,” Rowe recollects. “At age 18, when my city councilman resigned, I asked to be appointed to his seat … I was elected mayor of Tishomingo a month before I graduated high school.”

            He served two terms as one of the youngest mayors in U.S. history, continuing to lead his city’s government in college while commuting to East Central University (later earning his law degree at the University of Oklahoma College of Law). But what seems like a formidable task for such a young person was never a chore, he insists. "It was just something that came more naturally to me than other things. I understood government, and I had an interest in it."

            In 2001, Rowe opened a law practice in Tishomingo. Four years later, he became a judge for the Chickasaw Nation, whose court system had recently been reestablished after being disbanded about 100 years earlier. As the great-great-grandson of a full-blooded Chickasaw and an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, Rowe viewed the opportunity as a privilege.

            It was “a great honor to work with the courts and to serve as a judge not only for the Indian people,” he says. Additionally, the role helped Oklahoma as a whole because he was able to take a lot of workload off the state court system by transferring cases that would otherwise have been in state court instead of tribal court.

 

‘Humility and integrity’

            Then in 2019, 14 years after taking the role on the tribal court, Rowe heard of an opening on the state Supreme Court. It was never his ambition or career path to serve as a justice on the Oklahoma Supreme Court, says Rowe, who made an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2012.

            “I've always told my wife [Nicole] . . . that if we're faithful to the calling that's before us, then and only then can we ever expect the Lord to allow us greater opportunities to serve in any area.” The couple began to pray, “knowing that it would be a drastic change in our lives, not only personally but professionally.”

            That November, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed Rowe to the bench. At the swearing-in ceremony, Stitt quoted Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly before your God.”

            The verse defines Rowe, says the governor. “Justice Rowe is a humble man who fears God and will deliver justice based on compassion, wisdom and commitment to the rule of law,” Stitt said at the ceremony. “He's been a strong leader who has displayed a heart for mercy and justice in both his career and his community.”

            The Rowes—parents of a son studying law and a daughter preparing for a nursing career—bought a house in the state capital of Oklahoma City, saying goodbye to family and friends and closing Rowe's law practice. "I've always felt that we need people at all levels of government to serve sacrificially and to do it with the right heart and for the right reasons,” he says. “I didn't go to court for any other reason than to serve, hopefully, with humility and with integrity.”

 

‘Testament of faith’ 

            The modern court system has its roots in the days of Moses, who served as a judge for the people of Israel, Rowe says. Exodus 18 records the story of Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, advising his burned-out son-in-law to assign judges for lesser cases, leaving him to hear the bigger cases. “I like to think Moses was the first Supreme Court justice because he set up a court system like we have today,” Rowe says.

            As a justice, he is not there to defend the Bible, he asserts, but to uphold the Constitution. “It's very important to me that as a judge, everyone will expect that I will give a fair decision to them regardless of my personal opinion or my personal beliefs,” the jurist says. "I don't come to the court to impose my Christian philosophy upon the law. I come to the court to serve the public, and we can do that as Christians or people of different faiths and do it faithfully accordingly to the law. If I do that well, that is a testament of my faith, just as it would be to any other person who works hard and does good work."

            Rowe considers himself an originalist who tries to determine a statute's intent in applying facts to a case. Originalism, he says, “is the safest method to analyze the law because otherwise—if we treat the text of a document as growing, living or morphing—we are opening it up to the subjectivity of the current reader. That can change from day to day and month to month.” Originalism allows judges “to obtain an outcome that's objective,” he says.

            Judicial activism tilts the balance of power in government, he says. Though he, like other judges, faces retention votes, the judicial system is a largely unelected branch of government, he says. “If you treat them as coequal branches of government, it's a brilliant model.” People can meet with and lobby their elected representatives, while judges are unable to discuss a case that is before them. The court system exists "to weigh the constitutionality of that policy" set by the legislature, he says.

 

‘Room for faith’

            Rowe's day-to-day life requires he consume a lot of information. But he begins each day reading God's unchanging truth. “Religious philosophies come, and religious philosophies go. Churches are changing. Doctrines are changing,” he says. “It's really easy to get swept away in whatever the current trend is, but if we stay in the Word, I think we are much better equipped to deal with all the change that's floating through at any given time, whether it be the church or society or our lives or our family.”

            His spiritual disciplines ground and equip him to represent Christ well in all his roles, including as a judge. And there is room for more people like him in public service, he says. "I like to remind people that we need Christians in secular jobs, not just in the ministry," he says.

            “There is room for faith. If I work as unto the Lord and I give it my very best, that means I'm going to study every case, and I'm going to work very hard. I think that comports with what we are to do as Christians.”