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Local View: Rittenhouse judge sparked public concern, debate

From the column: "Judges are required to be unbiased and must avoid any words or gestures that could suggest a desired outcome to the jury."

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Dick Wright / Cagle Cartoons

There was a very high-profile homicide case in a neighboring state, causing several rulings and actions by the trial judge to be the subject of vigorous debate. I am reluctant to armchair quarterback another judge, mostly because it is entirely possible that all of the key facts were not included in the media accounts and the law in another state might be different.

But there were a couple things in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse that sparked public concern and warrant conversation.

First, why was the weapons charge dismissed? At the beginning of the trial, some of the reporting gave the impression that the defendant would likely be convicted of being a minor in possession of a dangerous weapon. Shortly before closing arguments, the judge dismissed that charge. My understanding is this ruling was driven by the specific language of the Wisconsin statute. The minor prohibition section cross references another statute, and, when read together, it applies only to illegal short-barreled firearms. Once the evidence was admitted that the gun in question did not meet the applicable definition, the judge felt compelled to dismiss the charge.

The Minnesota counterpart (Minn. Stat. § 624.713) is worded differently and prohibits minors from possessing a “semiautomatic military-style assault weapon.” However, there is an exception for any person who has successfully completed a marksmanship and safety course for that type of weapon.

Second, why did a defense witness get a round of applause shortly before testifying? Apparently the judge wanted to recognize Veterans Day and asked if anyone in the courtroom had served in the military. The only person who volunteered that information was the person about to take the stand for the defense. The judge then led the courtroom in a round of applause.

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Judges are required to be unbiased and must avoid any words or gestures that could suggest a desired outcome to the jury. In Minnesota, our standard jury instructions at trial specifically tell the jury to disregard any conduct by the judge that might suggest otherwise.

Although it is commendable to recognize veterans on Veterans Day, drawing this sort of attention to a witness is not something most of us would do. Any show of favoritism potentially jeopardizes the integrity of the jury’s decision.

However, an acquittal cannot be appealed, so there will be no further review of the case by Wisconsin’s appellate courts.

Third, was it wrong for a judge’s ringtone to suggest political affiliation? At one point during the trial, the judge’s phone — apparently unsilenced — rang with the sounds of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” which also is used at some political rallies. Putting aside the usual embarrassment caused by having your phone ring at a bad time, and allowing for individual taste in music, I thought this issue was overblown. I am pretty sure that song has been played at rallies for both parties — and also at every Fourth of July fireworks display for the last 30 years.

In Minnesota, judges are nonpartisan, and our ethics rules expressly prohibit attending political events, endorsing candidates, and taking any sort of leadership role in a political party. I don’t believe the accidental playing of a country song would fall into those categories.

And if you ever hear the opening chords to Bruce Springsteen’s “Rosalita,” well, I apologize in advance for the disruption.

Dale Harris of Duluth is a judge in the Sixth Judicial District.

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Sixth Judicial District Judge Dale Harris

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