Alumna Christine Schaller's path to becoming a Thurston County Superior Court Judge
Thurston County Superior Court Judge Christine Schaller, who ran a successful 2012 election campaign while balancing professional duties and caring for two young children, says she owes a great deal to Saint Martin’s.
When Schaller, a 1993 Saint Martin’s College graduate, addressed supporters at her campaign kick-off last year at the Norman Worthington Conference Center, she said, “I can say with certainty that I would not be standing before you today as a candidate for judge if not for my excellent parents and had I not been here about 20 years ago … being taught by some of the most dedicated and talented professors. This has been a place of beginnings, transitions and growth for me.”
Schaller says she discovered who she was at Saint Martin’s.
“The core of who I am is how my parents raised me, but Saint Martin’s changed my life,” says Schaller. “I came into my own there and had so many opportunities. At Saint Martin’s, you could be whatever you wanted.”
Saint Martin’s runs in the family. Schaller is the daughter of two alumni — Ed Schaller, Jr. HS’62 ’66, who died in 2001, and Rose Schaller ’74.
Like many students, she looked forward to going away to college after completing high school locally. Her father, then a member of Saint Martin’s Alumni Association and the College’s Board of Trustees, talked her into giving Saint Martin’s a try. “He was very persuasive,” she laughs.
Schaller soon discovered opportunities for her to make a difference. She got involved in student government and became captain of the cheerleading squad. She participated in the Model Arab League, a competition that helped students learn about Middle Eastern issues.
She also found professors who inspired her, beginning with her first religion class from Father Kilian Malvey, O.S.B. Her learning continued through courses in history and political science taught by two professors who played a pivotal role in her education, Rex Casillas, Ph.D. and Roger Snider, Ph.D.
Having grown up in the shadow of her older sister, Nicky, “an outstanding athlete and the brain of the family,” Schaller says Saint Martin’s also taught her that she, too, had her share of talents, abilities and the drive necessary to succeed.
Succeed she did.
Schaller graduated magna cum laude and enrolled in Gonzaga University School of Law. In 1996, she completed her law degree with cum laude honors, then passed her bar exam that summer.
Along the way, she realized she was a “home” girl, one who was happiest near her family. So she moved back to Olympia and joined her father’s law firm, Foster, Foster and Schaller, as an associate attorney. The firm practiced several different kinds of law. She found she loved family law.
“You have an opportunity to help people when they’re at one of the most difficult stages in their lives,” she says. “When I went to law school, I didn’t understand you could have such a positive impact on people’s lives by advocating for them.”
Outside the office, she took part in several community activities, including providing free legal work. She also served on several boards, the alumni association and the United Community AIDS Network among them.
In 1999, Schaller married Chris Kradjan in a ceremony performed by Father Benedict Auer, O.S.B., who later baptized their daughter. The couple settled in Tacoma, midway between his CPA consulting job in Seattle and hers with the Olympia law firm.
That same year, a receptionist at the law firm suggested fielding a team in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. Schaller took the first of many walks on the team, named the “Foster, Foster and Schaller Loopholes” by her dad. Two months later, this activity took on new meaning when Ed Schaller was diagnosed with cancer. He died May 21, 2001.
“I was fortunate I was exceptionally close to my dad,” she says. “He was my dad — but we were also friends and business partners. It was hard on my sister and me because he died before we had kids, and we knew our children would never know him.”
Cancer came yet again into her life in December 2003, when her mother began the agonizing fight against the disease. Her mother is now doing well. Schaller looks back on her parents’ illnesses as her greatest challenge. It deepened her compassion and empathy for others, something of immeasurable value when working with the many people she meets facing adversity.
One day, Schaller was asked by Olympia Municipal Court Judge Lee Creighton to pro tem — substitute — for him in his court.
“I’d never thought about doing that,” she recalls. “There’s a big difference between being an advocate for a client and being a decision-maker. I really wondered if I could be fair — but when a judge asks you to do something, you don’t say no.”
By the end of her first day, she felt reassured and continued to substitute. Judging a case, she realized, was looking at the same set of facts from a different perspective. When a post came open for a court commissioner in the Family and Juvenile Court in 2005, she was chosen for the job.
Schaller’s professionalism, ethics and respect for those who come before her in court earned her accolades from the Thurston County Bar Association, which has given her the highest ratings among Thurston County judicial officers in three of its four recent surveys. In 2009, she was named Jurist of the Year by the Washington State Bar Association’s Family Law Section.
Her campaign for the Superior Court post drew an impressive roster of professional endorsements and ultimately earned her 67 percent of the vote.
Schaller says she brings to the bench important skills she first learned in her history and political science classes. She learned to analyze issues and developed writing skills able to pass muster under the critical eye of her professors.
When she assisted Casillas with an entry-level class once a week, she began learning to speak to students in a way that prompted responses.
“That’s an important skill as a judge,” she says. “It helps with jury selection when people need to be pushed beyond their comfort level and boundaries.”
Schaller goes forward in her career with a vote of confidence from those at Saint Martin’s who know her caliber best.
“From the time she first came here, she has been a source of consistent excellence and never settled for anything but the best from herself,” Casillas says. “I think she will be a splendid judge — she has all the earmarks: fairness, reason and a commitment to justice.”