The Rittenhouse-Trial Judge Isn’t a Trumpist

Judge Bruce Schroeder gestures during Kyle Rittenhouse’s trial in Kenosha Circuit Court in Kenosha, Wis., November 5, 2021. (Mark Hertzberg/Pool via Reuters)

He’s a liberal (in a good way).

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He’s a liberal.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A s the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse has progressed, Americans who hope for a successful conviction have begun to focus their attentions on the true villain of the piece: the 75-year-old presiding judge, Bruce Schroeder.

Among the many accusations that have been leveled at Schroeder this week are that he is “biased,” that he is “prejudiced,” that he is a secret “conservative,” “right-winger,” or “Trumpist,” that he is a “a gun nut,” that he is a “a racist” or wannabe member of the Klan, that he is the “worst judge in town,” and that he is attempting to parlay this trial into a “gig on FOX News or OAN, or whatever.” If, as seems eminently possible, Rittenhouse is acquitted of all the charges that have been brought against him by the state, one suspects that a lot of the resulting opprobrium will fall on Schroeder.

Which would be ludicrous, because Bruce Schroeder is in fact none of the things that his critics have proposed. Instead, he’s a liberal.

I use that word favorably. As the Washington Post notes in a recent profile, Schroeder is “a jurist who believes trials can be too easily manipulated, particularly by the prosecution.” Or, as Slate’s Jeremy Stahl puts it, Schroeder has a reputation for being “generally more favorable to defendants than many other judges.” Why has Schroeder conducted the trial in the way that he has? Because that is how he always conducts trials. It has nothing to do with some preposterous wish to help Rittenhouse, or with some secret desire to defend the Second Amendment, or with some longshot play to replace Tucker Carlson in the 9 p.m. hour. Schroeder is a liberal on matters of criminal justice, and this is how liberals on matters of criminal justice tend to judge.

For some reason, this has been too much for many observers to comprehend. On Twitter this week, former RNC Chairman Michael Steele described the Rittenhouse trial as a “clusterf*” on the grounds that Judge Schroeder had ruled that “prosecutors can’t refer to those who were killed by Rittenhouse as ‘victims.’” “What the actual hell,” asked Steele, “was that all about”? But isn’t it obvious? The sole purpose of the trial is to establish whether Rittenhouse is guilty of murder or whether he was acting in self-defense, and to label the deceased as “victims” from the outset is to inappropriately beg the very question that the jury is there to decide. It is true that it was not mandatory for Judge Schroeder to bar the use of the term, just as it was not mandatory for him to keep it from the jury that one of the people whom Rittenhouse shot had recently been discharged from a mental institution. But it was both logical and acceptable for Schroeder to do so — and, if the local news reports are to be believed, it was also wholly typical. Has our pundit class really forgotten that people such as Schroeder exist?

Back in 1983, when Schroeder was appointed to the bench, the approach he routinely exhibits would have been roundly welcomed by all Americans who call themselves “liberals.” Today? Well, it’s complicated. As Ben Dreyfuss, formerly of Mother Jones, has observed, there now exists a “tension between modern liberals and historically liberal pro-defense attorney positions” — a tension that was highlighted neatly earlier in the week when, in a reaction that would have been incomprehensible to the self-described liberals of 1983, crowds of left-leaning trial-watchers grew angry with Schroeder for impressing upon the prosecutor the sacred importance of the right to remain silent. Did they believe, one must wonder, that because they personally do not like him, the Fifth Amendment should not apply to Kyle Rittenhouse?

That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m serious. Two days ago, Hakeem Jeffries, a Democratic representative from New York, tweeted, “Lock up Kyle Rittenhouse and throw away the key.” Last year, he sang a different tune: “End. Mass. Incarceration. Defund The Prison Industrial Complex.” So which one is it? Are we ending “mass incarceration” and defunding the “prison industrial complex”? Or are we intervening mid-trial to recommend life sentence for suspects who are guaranteed the presumption of innocence by the very Constitution that Jeffries has sworn to uphold? Clearly, we can’t do both.

Strongly as one might feel about this or that trial, or this or that defendant, there can be no “had it coming” exemption to elementary principles such as the right to remain silent, the presumption of innocence, or the guarantee of trial by jury. One either believes in them or one does not, and if one does believe in them, then one must apply them equally to the people one likes and the people one doesn’t like. There is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong with having a slightly less defendant-friendly approach than Judge Schroeder, but when one goes so far as to base one’s conception of the ideal criminal-justice system on the identity of the suspect being tried, or to declare that a given tribunal must be a “clusterf*” because the judge is more skeptical of prosecutors than one might like, or to reduce a man’s 40-year career to a set of hastily assembled epithets . . . well, then one is not really haggling over the details so much as throwing the rule of law into the trash. At the outset of this case, Judge Schroeder explained aloud that “this is not a political trial.” For him, that is undoubtedly true. But the world has changed, and its loudest and most reckless voices increasingly beg to differ.

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