The televised homicide trial of Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin has also shined a light on the man presiding over the proceedings: Judge Bruce Schroeder.
Video clips of Schroeder have circulated widely during the trial, at times almost overshadowing the events of the case itself, both for his mannerisms and judgment.
But the trial of Rittenhouse, who at age 17 shot three demonstrators in August 2020 — killing two men — at a chaotic racial justice protest in Kenosha, Wis., has given the public a high-definition look at the day-to-day workings of the legal system and the people within it.
The case went to the jury on Tuesday. The most serious charges against Rittenhouse are first-degree intentional homicide, first-degree reckless homicide, attempted first-degree intentional homicide and first-degree recklessly endangering public safety.
Schroeder, who serves on the Kenosha County Circuit Court, seems well aware that he would come under scrutiny. He has referenced the media attention in the leadup to the trial and worried about the potential for the highly charged coverage to influence the outcome. He has also made a point to explain his rationale for certain rulings, above and beyond what a judge might do ordinarily.
But even small details — such as Schroeder’s phone ringtone of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” — have become fodder for legal observers and outsiders tuned in to the proceedings. Judges typically have considerable leeway over how they conduct their courtrooms, and their decisions often shape the direction of trials in ways big and small.
Ahead of the trial’s start date, Schroeder barred attorneys in the case from using the term “victim” to refer to the two men fatally shot by the teenage Rittenhouse. The judge determined that the word was “loaded” and could color jurors’ assessment of Rittenhouse, though Schroeder permitted terms such as “rioters” and “looters” — provided they were supported by evidence.
“The word ‘victim’ is a loaded, loaded word,” Schroeder said on Oct. 26. “And I think ‘alleged victim’ is a cousin to it.”
Most dramatically Schroeder temporarily halted the trial and excoriated the lead prosecutor, outside of jurors’ earshot, after he veered into a line of inquiry regarding a video of Rittenhouse allegedly expressing a desire to shoot looters that the judge had previously expressed misgivings about. Schroeder has expressed harsh words to prosecutors on several other occasions during the trial.
The judge also raised eyebrows when his overture to commemorate Veterans Day resulted in courtroom applause for a defense witness who Schroeder noted was a veteran. (He also likened jury duty to the military draft during the selection process.)
While much of the outside criticism of Schroeder has come from those who say he has been too favorable to the defense, not all of the judge’s rulings have cut in that direction.
He dismissed a white juror who was overheard making a joke about the shooting of Jacob Blake — the Black man whose shooting by a white Kenosha police officer left him paralyzed and set off intense protests that precipitated the fatal episode for which Rittenhouse is on trial. Schroeder agreed with prosecutors that the juror’s continued presence on the panel “would seriously undermine the outcome” of the trial.
Other moments have had less direct bearing on the case, but have nonetheless encapsulated the unusual circumstances gripping the country at present.
At one point during jury selection, Schroeder was beset by a coughing fit before assuring those in the room that he had been vaccinated — including a booster dose — against Covid-19. And last week the judge made a quip referencing the nation’s ongoing supply chain woes as the court headed into a recess for lunch.
“I hope the Asian food isn’t coming … isn’t on one of those boats from Long Beach Harbor,” Schroeder said.
That remark upset some Asian American activists, who felt it denigrated their culture, and others given the racial dynamics that surround the events in the Rittenhouse case.
Schroeder was first appointed to the Kenosha County Circuit Court in 1983 by Democratic Gov. Anthony Earl, won election a year later and has been reelected every six years in the decades since — typically unopposed. He is the longest-serving active circuit judge in the state.
He received both his undergraduate and law degrees from Marquette University in Milwaukee. Schroeder worked as a prosecutor in Kenosha for several years in the 1970s upon graduating from law school before entering private practice.
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