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Gary Younge
Judge claims age bias at 83

In his lawsuit Mr Opala insists he "enjoys good health and sound mental acuity" and was unfairly denied the "ceremonial duties" and higher salary that come with the top post. The salary hike amounts to $3,000 (£1,600), or less than 3% of his income.

The post of chief justice has rotated, every two years, among justices who have served at least six years. Under those rules Mr Opala should be next in line. But his colleagues changed the rules so that the current chief justice, Joseph Watt, could extend his term by two years.

Mr Opala was livid, alleging a plot between Mr Watt and the court's "young Turks" (the youngest is 52) to deny him his rightful place on the bench. "As a matter of history," says Mr Opala in his lawsuit, "state judges would not resort to federal court to settle their differences. In the last 20 years though a body of law has developed called employment law. It provides norms for hiring, firing, promotion and demotion."

But others regard the fact that he has taken the issue to court as grounds enough to bar him from the job.

"The court has an interest in ensuring that the role is filled by someone of exemplary judgment, temperament and related capacities," Deborah Rhode, a legal ethics teacher at Stanford told the New York Times.

"These do not appear in abundant supply in this particular case."

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