Kyle Rittenhouse trial: Judge has sparked controversy before, insists the case is not 'political'

·4 min read

MILWAUKEE — Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder is the longest serving current judge in Wisconsin. He's also becoming a polarizing national figure for his early decisions in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse.

Schroeder, 75, said Monday the people shot by Rittenhouse could not be called "victims" — a term he routinely bans in his trials unless someone has been convicted of a crime against the person. But after Schroeder also didn't ban defense lawyers from calling the men "looters, rioters, arsonists or any other pejorative term," national scrutiny followed.

Rittenhouse will go on trial next week for shooting three people, two fatally, during a protest against police brutality last year in Kenosha, about 40 miles southeast of Milwaukee.

Coverage of Schroeder's early decisions has prompted a deeper look at his long career.

He was appointed a circuit judge in 1983 by then-Gov. Anthony Earl. He has been re-elected to the seat ever since, making him the longest-serving active circuit judge in the state. His current term expires in 2026.

During his tenure, he has presided overother high-profile trials, including a major reversal in one of them. He also prompted controversy recently after he quoted a racial slur, a moment caught on camera during online streaming of court proceedings last year.

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In that controversy, Schroeder says he was discussing news about protests over statues of Confederate military figures when he said he could understand anger directed at Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Schroeder quoted an order given by Forrest to kill Black people, which included the slur.

Forrest, a former slave trader, gave the order after prevailing in an 1864 attack on a Union fort in Tennessee manned largely by Black union soldiers.

Schroeder later addressed that controversy in a statement saying he "purposely used the revoltingly offensive order as it was uttered because I thought (and still do) that it is grossly inappropriate to veil the ghastly wickedness of this hateful and murderous command with a more delicate substitute."

"It is a shocking statement, and it should shock us now and not be tidied up for modern audiences."

Now, national attention is turning to his handling of the Rittenhouse case, which Schroeder has tried to run "like any other homicide case," while still acknowledging its high stakes and profile.

Schroeder has eschewed lawyers' suggestions to use written pre-trial questionnaires to help screen potential jurors for biases in a case that has generated extreme feelings on both sides.

Instead, Schroeder has said he will do jury selection in his normal fashion and that he expects one can be selected in a day. In the Georgia trial of three men charged with killing Ahmaud Arberry, a Black man who was running through their neighborhood, jury selection is in its second week.

He has said, "this is not a political case," but it's clear he's aware of the raw feelings it has generated outside the courtroom.

When he denied prosecutors' request to demand Rittenhouse's current address be made part of the public record, or raise his $2 million bail, Schroeder drew protests calling for his resignation.

On Wednesday, about a dozen nasty emails about Schroeder's Monday ruling were put into the record of the Rittenhouse case. They called for him to resign or retire. Some said he must be senile. Most used a lot of language that is unsuitable for publication.

Schroeder has presided over high-profile cases before, most notably the trial of Mark Jensen, who was charged in the fatal anti-freeze poisoning of his wife, Julie.

The case drew national attention, and Schroeder made one of the key pretrial rulings that led to Jensen's conviction — and then to 20 years of appeals and two orders for a new trial. The latest is on hold while the state asks the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and keep Jensen in prison.

Crucial to the state's case were a letter and statements Julie wrote and made to people suggesting Mark was likely responsible if she died. The Wisconsin Supreme Court found such so-called "voice from the grave" statements were inadmissible at trial, unless it was determined Jensen had forfeited his Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him by killing the witness.

Schroeder made that finding, the statements were introduced at trial, and Jensen is serving life in prison. An appellate court ruled Schroeder erred, but that it was harmless to the outcome.

Other courts disagreed and have ordered new trials twice.

Earlier this year, the Court of Appeals threw out part of a sentence Schroeder imposed against a woman convicted of shoplifting. He ordered that while on two years of supervision — following a 15-month prison term — the woman had to inform the management of any store she entered that she was on supervision for retail theft.

“We are not persuaded that embarrassing or humiliating defendants with a state-imposed broad public notification requirement promotes their rehabilitation,” the court ruled.

Follow Bruce Vielmetti on Twitter: @ProofHearsay.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Judge in Kyle Rittenhouse case sparked controversy over racial slur