Thad Balkman

NORMAN — When you ask for a story about Thad Balkman, his friends will immediately laugh and tell you about his bedroom’s brief brush with stardom.

Hollywood producers were so enthralled with Balkman’s bedroom décor that Ferris Bueller’s bedroom was modeled from it. The Balkman family’s California home, meanwhile, also served as a set for the '80s comedy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Balkman celebrated his 14th birthday while crews were filming there.

After the movie, “People would pull up to the house and shout 'Hey Ferris!’" recalls family friend Bobby Cleveland, a lobbyist and executive director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals.

Decades later, Balkman, now 47, has become a defining face of the nation’s first opioid trial. He’s the Cleveland County judge who will decide single-handedly how much, if any, blame opioid manufacturer Johnson and Johnson and its subsidiaries bear for Oklahoma’s addiction epidemic.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter’s legal team is attempting to prove the companies helped create public nuisance by using false or misleading opioid painkiller advertising.

Hunter has accused several drug companies and their subsidiaries of contributing to overdoses, addictions and deaths. He is seeking billions to ease the state’s opioid epidemic. Two other companies settled ahead of the trial.

Johnson and Johnson has denied wrongdoing, and for the past five weeks, a steady stream of witnesses has paraded in and out of Balkman’s courtroom trying to shape his opinion.

The trial marks the first of its kind in the nation. Experts say many are watching the proceedings and outcome closely for clues about how similar trials could go in other parts of the country.

Andrew S. Pollis, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Ohio, said Oklahoma’s trial is the first test for governments and opioid companies. Pharmaceutical companies and investors are likely watching closely to glean information about potential financial implications.

Ultimately, he said the outcome may not be useful for anyone. That's because Oklahoma’s public nuisance statute is so unique, its legal argument is different and Oklahoma is only one state.

It also won’t set legal precedent, Pollis said.

“But people are going to look at it like it sets precedent because they’re so thirsty for answers,” he said.

After Balkman issues a verdict, Pollis said attention will shift to Ohio where an opioid lawsuit involving hundreds of litigants is set to start later this year. Balkman’s ruling, meanwhile, will likely to be subject to lengthy and rigorous appeals.

Still, Balkman’s decision “has the potential to be the wind at the back of the plaintiffs” in Ohio’s case.

“You’d rather be going to trial in Cleveland on the side that prevailed in Oklahoma,” he said.

‘He’s just very fair'

Cleveland, a former state representative, has spent much of his past five weeks in Balkman’s court because he’s interested in ensuring the state’s prison system gets increased funds to improve addiction treatment behind bars.

He said Balkman is the right person to decide the issue. He doesn’t make hasty decisions.

“He doesn’t shoot from the hip,” Cleveland said. “He really thinks things out. If you look to him for advice, he’ll give a thorough examination. He doesn’t show favoritism. He’s just very fair.”

Balkman has never shied away from doing the right thing, even if it’s not popular, said Robert Keyes, a friend and business owner from Norman. He’s known the judge for more than 20 years.

Keyes recalls how Balkman faced down a congressman while fighting to make sure that Norman’s National Weather Center project was properly funded. Balkman disregarded warnings that it could ruin his career.

“He’s a man of deep conviction,” Keyes said. “What you see is what you get, and it’s good.”

Keyes said he gave Balkman his first campaign contribution when he ran as a Republican for Norman’s state House seat. Balkman served six years in the state Legislature before working as a lawyer and lobbyist.

Balkman, a graduate of the University of Oklahoma’s law school, was appointed to the bench by former Republican Gov. Mary Fallin. He declined to comment for this story.

Friends, though, say Balkman’s convictions and beliefs are shaped by his deep Mormon faith. He met his wife of 25 years, Amy, at church. He became fluent in Spanish while serving a two-year church mission in Argentina.

Norman resident Andrea Avance, who works as an elementary school music teacher, said Balkman is a devoted dad to his five children ranging from age 21 to 11. There’s a trampoline in the backyard of their Norman home, which welcomes lots of pets and is often opened to visitors.

The two have known each other for 20 years, but got to know each other very well while Balkman was serving as a bishop in his local ward. The two were tasked with working together to help people in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregation.

“Everything goes back to his faith in God and his desires to help his fellow man on Earth,” Avance said.

Avance said Balkman was very good at connecting with people in desperate situations.

“We didn’t always agree, but he was fair-minded, and he always heard me out,” she said.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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