Barry R. Schaller was a distinguished judge, an author, an expert on bioethics, and a model of evenhandedness. His quiet demeanor hid a friendly personality and he was widely seen as an example of what every judge should be.
“He was that perfect mixture of intellectual curiosity, enthusiasm and objectivity,” said Chief Justice Chase Rogers, a former colleague on the state Supreme Court.
Schaller, a resident of Guilford, died Sept. 9. He was 78.
His calm demeanor masked his tremendous energy. He wrote a gripping novel while undergoing treatment for a rare form of leukemia. While serving as a judge and as a justice on the state supreme court, Schaller taught classes at Yale Law School as well as at Trinity College, Wesleyan University and Quinnipiac University. He founded and served on the state’s first committee on judicial ethics and was an active member of his church. He kept in motion and was in excellent physical condition.
As a judge, Schaller was known for his careful handling of the Colonial Realty real estate collapse, which entailed 2,000 cases. The West Hartford-based real estate company was forced into bankruptcy in 1990, costing more than 6,000 investors as much as $350 million.
He was the judge in the highly publicized trial of Richard Crafts, a Newtown resident who was accused of killing his wife and disposing of her body with a wood chipper in 1986. The trial drew extensive attention because no body was ever found. The conviction was based on testimony by a medical examiner about the body parts removed from Craft’s wood chipper and the riverside location where he used the chipper. Schaller allowed television cameras to cover the proceedings, becoming one of the first judges to allow cameras in a courtroom.
After 18 years as a trial judge, Schaller was appointed to the state Appellate Court, where he secured his reputation as a hard worker. He wrote more than 500 opinions, plus 17 concurring opinions and 48 dissenting opinions. In 2007, Gov. Jodi Rell appointed him to the state Supreme Court, where he was able to serve only one year — during which he sat on 94 cases, and wrote 19 opinions, one concurring opinion and three dissenting opinions. Under state law, he was required to leave the Supreme Court when he turned 70, and he returned to the Appellate Court, where he worked as a trial referee, hearing cases until his death.
When Chase became the chief justice, she asked Schaller to organize an ethics committee for the court, and Schaller became the first chairman of the Committee on Judicial Ethics, which provides non-binding opinions to judges on issues of conflicts of interest or when they should bow out of a case.
“He was well rounded, thoughtful and very dedicated to collegiality,” said Supreme Court Justice Richard Palmer. “He was an expert on ethics, even tempered and scholarly.” An English major in college, Schaller enjoyed writing and wrote many concurring opinions “because he frequently thought very seriously and thoughtfully about something the [court’s opinion] hadn’t considered,” Palmer said.
“He wanted to know everything,” said Dennis Cornelli, one of Schaller’s law clerks. “In-depth analysis; you don’t always get that. He was the opposite.”
One case took Schaller a year to decide. “The case was argued and presented one way but [the lawyers] didn’t really get to the issue; we needed supplemental briefs,” Cornelli said.
He wasn’t results oriented, Cornelli said. “His judicial philosophy was as a neutral arbiter.”
When Robert Beach appeared in court before Schaller, “It was a very pleasant experience.” Later, after Beach became a judge, he said he used to “imagine what a real judge would do,” and thought of Schaller: “Calm, fair, academic, and having common sense. Listen to everyone, make a reasoned decision. It helped to have a particular judge in mind.”
When a case arose before Schaller involving the right to build a wharf in Stonington harbor, he researched the arcane issues thoroughly. “The common law goes back to Colonial times,” said Dwight Merriam, whose client ultimately won the case. “He probably knew more about the law and the case than the people trying it.”
At Yale, Schaller’s original career goal was to be a professor of literature, “but he thought the ivory tower was too cloistered for his personality,” said his wife, Carol. Instead, he decided to go to Yale Law School and graduated in 1963. He practiced law with Bronson & Rice, a small firm in New Haven, and found time to become involved in local Republican politics until former Gov. Thomas Meskill appointed him to the bench in 1974. Schaller was 34.
Schaller was born on Nov. 23, 1938, the son of Mildred and Raymond T. Schaller. His father was a real estate developer in Manchester, and his grandfather had emigrated from Vicques, a tiny town in the French part of Switzerland.
After his first marriage ended in divorce, Schaller became the custodial parent of his three young children. Carol Virginia Covert, a church friend who had four children and also was divorced, ran into him at a grocery store and suggested that he join her in a group for single parents. Schaller agreed.
The first meeting involved folk singing and socializing, and afterwards, Schaller invited Carol out. “It was quite a love story,” Carol said. “Barry was very aware of being proper, and was not brave enough to hold my hand” on their first date. He was quickly smitten, but it took longer for Carol to decide to merge their two families. Their first big decision after they were engaged was to buy a large house in Madison with room for all seven children. They married in 1979 and celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary at the same restaurant where they had their first date.
Schaller’s interest in literature and the law led him to write “A Vision of American Law: Judging Law, Literature and the Stories We Tell,” which examined the legal issues and social values in works by Faulkner, Bellow and other American authors. Schaller was particularly concerned about the way veterans with PTSD were treated in court. “He advocated a more kind and understanding approach,” said Peter Simon, a lawyer who knew Schaller well. “He tried to be kind, recognizing that people who served the country ought to be given an extra break.”
In 2016, Schaller published a novel, “The Ramadi Affair,” about a judge nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court who had served in the military in Iraq.
“He felt a fictional account of PTSD would be useful,” said Alan Childress, whose company, Quid Pro Books, published the legal thriller/war novel. “It’s fascinating, because the Supreme Court nominee has to grapple with past atrocities committed under his command.” Schaller’s research included interviews with veterans about their experience in combat and how violence and fear had affected them. He spent hours questioning Carnelli, his former law clerk who had served in Iraq, about weapons, uniforms, and whether his plot was credible. “Flight from Aleppo,” a second novel that Schaller completed shortly before his death, is to be published next year.
Schaller served on ethics committees of St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center and Middlesex Hospital in Middletown, and wrote “Understanding Bioethics and the Law” in 2007. He later wrote “Veterans on Trial,” exploring the psychological effects of combat on veterans.
In addition to his wife, Schaller is survived by his seven children and stepchildren: Katherine Schaller Smith, Jane Schaller, Peter Schaller, Karen Colburn, C. Nicole Colburn Hackett, Donna Colburn, and Kristyn Colburn. He also is survived by 16 grandchildren and three grandchildren.
Schaller’s colleagues thought of him as an intellectual, but to his friends, he was just “a regular guy.” “There was a quietness about him and a sincere interest in whoever he was talking to,” said Maggie Coolican, a longtime friend.