Thursday, December 27, 2012
WALLA WALLA — Wednesday will be a first for Donald W. Schacht.
The first time in 40 years he won’t get up and go to the office on a work day.
The start of retirement for a man who has been a lawyer for four decades and a Walla Walla County Superior Court judge for the last 24 years — the second-longest tenure among a string of 21 such local jurists dating back to the territorial days of 1860.
Schacht won’t get to sleep in, though. Horses and other animals will need tending.
And he has too many other pending activities to be put out to pasture.
“I’m going to work on my seven antique cars,” as well as remain active in the county’s search-and-rescue organization, he said in a recent interview.
He’ll ride his horses, hunt and fish, pack into the mountains.
Maybe he’ll also complete some home projects. But that will occur when he and his wife, Margaret, aren’t traveling to see parts of the nation and the world, or visit grown children who live out of the area.
It’s a hefty docket for the 66-year-old judge. In order to accomplish it, he’ll be walking away Monday, to be replaced New Year’s Day by his newly elected successor, Scott Wolfram.
“I’m not going to practice law, pro tem, arbitrate or mediate,” Schacht said. “I’ve had a long and good career, and it’s time to move on to something else.”
That first job as a lawyer came around the end of 1972 with the law firm of John Reese and James B. Mitchell. Shortly afterward he opened his own practice, became a partner with Ron McAdams in 1975 and was hired as a deputy prosecutor for the county about two years later.
Schacht was the elected prosecuting attorney for two years starting in 1987, then assumed his current judicial position in 1989 after being voted into that office.
After serving six four-year terms resulting in nearly a quarter of a century wearing a robe, he said simply: “It was a good job. It was interesting and fun to come to work every day. No two days were alike.”
Not that he “enjoyed” listening to problems that seriously affected people’s lives, presiding over difficult felony and civil-lawsuit cases, and making half the courtroom mad every time he made a ruling.
“I’ve enjoyed being a judge in making fair decisions under the circumstances,” he explained.
Surprising no one who notices the absence of high-tech devices in his Courthouse courtroom, Schacht is a traditionalist, embracing historical foundations of his court’s physical appearance and the judicial process, in general.
“Where you’re assured you’re treated fairly, your voice is heard and the decision is fair,” he said.
“I think I’ve been fairly successful in doing that.”
He’s not tired of being a judge, but has become weary of how he and others have been constrained by the state Legislature and appellate-court rulings over the past quarter century in exercising local discretion.
Repetition of criminal behavior, domestic violence and drug addiction also have become “disheartening and frustrating” to him.
“I’m puzzled why the public doesn’t get more outraged at some of this stuff,” he said.
And Schacht is concerned with the rising number of socially related legal disputes arising from an increasingly litigious society.
He believes certain rulings related to marriage dissolutions, for example, are taking too much time for overworked and underfunded courts, when more mediation and arbitration processes should be developed.
“Why not let the people who have the expertise make these decisions?” he said.
Also, he questioned whether non-serious crimes could be handled in a different way.
“We as a society have to decide what our priorities are.”
Schacht describes himself as very conservative, but “pretty darned tolerant and open-minded on a lot of things.” He believes he’s been fairly well-organized and thorough — perhaps to a fault when writing lengthy opinions detailing his rulings in complex issues.
“I wish I was eloquent enough or smart enough to rule from the bench,” he said. “But I can’t do it off the top of my head in many instances.”
Sitting in his chambers amid life-sized cardboard cutouts of western heroes the Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy — his “security officers” — Schacht said he will miss interaction with courtroom staff, his court reporter Tina Driver and law enforcement personnel.
And he hopes to be remembered as a judge who gave everybody their day in court, made fair decisions and tried to do a good job.
He will be just that, according to those who have worked with him in the courtroom.
Local attorney Jerry Makus said he has appeared with Schacht in various roles as much or more than anybody else over the years.
“He has always shown integrity. I think he has always taken his job extremely seriously and given it his all,” Makus said.
Prosecuting Attorney Jim Nagle characterized Schacht as “a very, very consistent, hard-working judge” who has always been fair.
The loss of decades of experience will leave a void tough to fill, Nagle added. “It’s really sad when someone like Don leaves because you feel you have to start all over again.”
Nagle also worked with Schacht in the prosecutor’s office from 1985-1988 and revealed: “Contrary to popular opinion, he has a very dry sense of humor. When you’re not looking, he’ll get you.”
County Clerk Kathy Martin also mentioned Schacht’s personality and human qualities. “I’ve always liked Don,” she said. “He’s a very nice, personable person.”
Martin has heard Schacht encourage criminal defendants struggling to turn their lives around.
And she said he’s been concerned for the safety and security of the general public, staff members and jurors — even to the point of escorting panel members out of the Courthouse on dark evenings.
It likely will be after sundown, as well, when Schacht leaves work for the final time Monday.
What will he be thinking after all these years?
“That’s a good question. I don’t know,” he replied.
“Hopefully, a job well done.”