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Front Page - Friday, January 4, 2019

Schalk embraces trials of federal court


When Marya Schalk was little, she got a jump on the other candidates in the 2016 presidential election by beginning her campaign early.

Although it was at least three decades before the big day, she’d calculated when she’d be 35 years old, picked the first election after that birthday and then started stumping for votes.

Schalk’s campaign trail consisted of wherever her family went in Nashville. “We’d be eating out, and I’d walk up to people and tell them I was running for president in 2016,” she recalls.

This was also long before the dewy-eyed presidential hopeful knew anything about politics. As that awareness dawned on her over the ensuing years, she lost her zeal to claim the highest office in the U.S.

“When I became aware of what politics was about, I no longer wanted to be president,” she says.

But Schalk never wavered from her desire to become an attorney. Her fascination with the law began at a tender age, though she can’t recall what sparked her infatuation. She then began her earnest exploration of the legal profession while a student at Father Ryan High School in Nashville, where she participated in mock trial her freshman year.

Schalk also clerked for a district attorney and a criminal defense lawyer while in high school.

After earning her undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt University, Schalk furthered her study of criminal law at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Upon earning her Juris Doctor, she remained in Knoxville for one year to clerk for Judge Joe Tipton of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals.

“I enjoyed that,” she says. “Research and writing are two of my strengths.”

Schalk had met her future husband, a native of the Chattanooga area, during her third year in law school. After completing her clerkship, she moved to the Scenic City to be with him.

Schalk wanted to be a prosecutor, but the district attorney’s office wasn’t hiring. So she put together a list of local criminal defense attorneys and then sent her resume into the fray. One of the lawyers who received it was the locally renown (or notorious, depending on the person offering an opinion) Jerry Summers.

“We met at Boathouse. I was dressed for a job interview, and he showed up wearing shorts,” Schalk remembers. “At the time, I didn’t know who he was.”

Schalk soon found out. Her first assignment with Summers involved assisting the veteran attorney as he defended Sen. Jerry Cooper in federal court. A grand jury had indicted Cooper on felony counts of bank fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy to commit bank fraud and mail fraud, and the senator faced up to 65 years in prison and $2 million in fines if convicted.

For Schalk, the case was an eye-opening initiation into the stern nature of federal sentencing guidelines. The case also revealed she was working for no ordinary attorney.

“We had news media following us to court. Few lawyers right out of law school have to deal with that,” Schalk says.

More common among new criminal defense attorneys are the doubts that rise out of the harsh realities of trying a case. Schalk remembers looking through a window at the federal courthouse as the jury deliberated Cooper’s case and wondering if she was strong enough to handle losing.

“I believed in our case; I believed Sen. Cooper hadn’t done anything wrong,” she says. “But I didn’t know what I was going to do if the jury didn’t get it right.”

The jury did reach the correct decision, Schalk says, so she never considered an early exit from criminal law. But as she’s developed a practice focused primarily on federal cases, she’s felt less than pleased with certain aspects of her job.

“I hear other attorneys joke that they don’t like to go to federal court because they like to win,” Schalk continues. “Federal prosecutors will build cases for years, so they’re ready and you’re behind the eight ball.”

Moreover, the firm for which Schalk works, Summers, Rufolo & Rodgers, handles many drug- and fraud-related cases. The latter often involve defendants who have never been accused of a crime, so everything is new and sometimes frightening to them.

“It’s difficult because federal cases are very involved, and I become personally connected to them,” she says. “I get to know my clients, which can make it hard to watch them tell their kids they might be going away for a few years.”

Schalk also feels sympathy for her clients that have made a mistake, whether they intended to or not, and must choose whether or not to defend against the prosecutor’s accusations in court or plead down to a lesser violation.

“If you testify at your trial in federal court, your sentence could be increased, and there are mandatory minimums on some cases,” Schalk says. “It’s hard to watch someone make the choice of whether or not to fight the charges made against them.”

Then there are the clients who are challenges in and of themselves. These are the ones that prompt her to wonder, as she did during Cooper’s trial, if she should continue to practice criminal law.

“There have been times when I’m doing all I can, but it’s not good enough because the client has unrealistic expectations,” Schalk says. “That puts me in a bad mood, and I can’t take that home, so I wonder, ‘Should I still be doing this?’”

When this happens, Summers reminds Schalk why she does what she does. “Someone has to fight for the little guy,” she says. “Even if you have a lot of resources and you’re well-educated, when you go up against the U.S. government, which has unlimited resources, you’re the little guy.”

Fortunately, grueling clients are few and far between, and Schalk’s job has its rewards as well.

“My clients and their families make it all worthwhile,” she adds. “That includes the cases when someone is going to go away for a few years, but they thank me and hug me at the end and say, ‘I know you fought for me and believed in me.’

“When I meet people, they’re at the lowest point in their life,” Schalk continues. “But I can be their beacon of hope.”

Schalk could say the same thing about her 8-year-old daughter, who suffers from juvenile arthritis.

Schalk’s daughter was diagnosed just before her third birthday, making her one of about 300,000 children in the U.S. with the disease. But instead of letting the condition slow her, the young lady is highly athletic, to the point of playing on a traveling soccer team.

This requires regular treatments, as well as trips to Nashville to see her pediatric rheumatologist, but it’s possible because Schalk’s daughter is stricken with the least debilitating form of the disease.

“If you’re going to have juvenile arthritis, it’s the best kind to have,” Schalk says. “It’s supposed to affect five or fewer joints, and she’s never had to have surgery. I’ve met kids who can’t get out of bed in the morning, so she’s doing great.”

After their daughter’s diagnosis at the age of three, Schalk and her husband started raising funds for the Nashville chapter of the Arthritis Foundation. (There is no Chattanooga chapter.) Schalk and her daughter have also spoken about juvenile arthritis at public events, including a national meeting of Schalk’s sorority, Alpha Omicron Pi.

“My daughter spoke only about four or five sentences, but I’m proud of her for getting in front of 800 people and telling them what she has,” Schalk explains. “She also educates the kids at her school about it.”

Schalk and her husband have raised close to $45,000 through the annual walks and runs the Arthritis Foundation hosts, and they won’t be stopping until a cure is found. “I don’t know what the future holds for my daughter, so I want to do everything I can to help,” Schalk says.

In every other way, Schalk’s family life sounds typical: her husband works in IT at Rock Creek; their 6-year-old son is getting into soccer, too; and Schalk serves as the team manager for her daughter’s team. “It’s more work than I thought it would be for an 8-year-old’s soccer team,” she laughs.

The family lives at the end of an inlet on Chickamauga Lake in Harrison and spends time on the water each summer, giving Schalk a relaxing sanctuary from the law.

Schalk might need to protect her downtime this year, as 2019 is shaping up to be busy. In addition to preparing for a trial in state court in January, Schalk and Summers will be waiting to hear if they’ll be appearing before the U.S. Supreme Court in as the attorneys representing the defendant in State of Tennessee v. Rosemary L. Decosimo.

Decosimo challenged the constitutionality of a statute that imposed a fee upon persons convicted of certain drug and alcohol offenses when forensic scientists employed by the TBI conducted chemical tests to determine blood alcohol or drug content. Since the funds remained available to the TBI, the defendant said the statutory scheme provided TBI scientists with a financial incentive to produce blood alcohol test results that secured convictions.

Summers and Schalk won the case in the Criminal Court of Appeals, only to see the Tennessee Supreme Court reverse the lower court’s ruling. Even if the U.S. Supreme Court denies certiorari, the case has already changed the law in Tennessee.

“After we won the case in the Criminal Court of Appeals, the state legislature fixed what we alleged was unconstitutional,” Schalk says. “But even though we’ve already changed the law, we still want to win the case for our client.”

Schalk’s job is like that of most attorneys: Although a struggle at times, at the end of the day, she enjoys the work. “It’s not been easy, but things worth fighting for and worth doing aren’t going to be easy,” she says.

That’s the kind of perspective that can get a lawyer through a tough day, make a mother proud of a child who’s stricken with a debilitating disease, and carry an attorney intent on making a difference all the way to the Supreme Court.

It can also empower a politically adverse citizen with previous campaign experience as she runs for president in 2020, but given Schalk’s propensity for getting an early start, it’s unlikely she’ll be throwing her hat into the ring.