Rittenhouse Trial Reminded America Why We Need The Rule of Law | Opinion

On Friday, the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse concluded. The 18-year-old was acquitted of homicide and reckless endangerment charges in the shooting of three men, two of whom died, during last summer's protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse's actions took place amidst days of demonstrations and nights of looting in Kenosha—a response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

The trial became a flashpoint in America's broader political and social conflicts. Blake's was one in a series of highly publicized violent incidents involving police officers and black men. A train of visceral, at times destructive protests and riots followed. Many saw the Rittenhouse trial as a reflection of the broader issues dividing the country in 2020. They understood the eventual verdict would be a vindication—or condemnation—of America on matters of racial justice, protection of property and gun rights.

In so thinking, we missed the real lessons of this trial. Rather than a metaphor or a microcosm for America's present divisions, the trial highlighted two longstanding benefits of our political system: the rule of law and the jury trial.

First, let's consider the rule of law. Emotions ran high during every assessment of Rittenhouse's actions. Many denounced or praised the young man based solely on whether they perceived him to be an enemy or a friend. Others saw the trial's outcome as a chance to vindicate their views on broader political and social matters.

These reactions, while perhaps understandable, heighten the prospect of injustice. They show how passions and prejudices can take over, even among persons with the best of intentions. And when passion and prejudice assume political power, persons suffer infringement of their life, their freedom and their property.

Rule by law addresses these concerns.

As a republic, the people are in charge, but they don't rule directly. They exercise power through enacted statutes. So in any legal proceeding, the people must lay out the rules before applying them to a particular person and his specific actions. That way, political power can't be used to hurt one's enemies by criminalizing past conduct, nor can one retrospectively protect one's friends by legalizing completed illegal deeds. Since laws only can target future deeds (not past ones), they must speak hypothetically and categorically to persons and deeds. The law, therefore, emphasizes what is done as opposed to who does it.

Rittenhouse trial protest
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - NOVEMBER 20: Activists attend a rally to protest the verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial on November 20, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. Rittenhouse, an Illinois teenager, was found not guilty of all charges in the fatal shootings of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and for shooting and wounding of Gaige Grosskreutz during unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake in August 2020. Scott Olson/Getty Images

On each point, the rule of law lessened the chance of an unjust outcome in the Rittenhouse case. Rittenhouse was on trial not for provoking political outrage, but under laws that establish standards of conduct applicable to anyone. The rule of law protected against abuse of political power in this highly charged environment.

Next, the Rittenhouse trial showed the benefits of the jury trial. Laws are if-then statements—they may only specify that if someone engages in a type of action, then that person violates the law. They say what it means to keep or violate the rules, not whether an actual deed obeyed or broke the law. Another mechanism—judicial power, as manifested in trials—makes that determination.

This power considers existing law and asks two questions. First, courts must determine what happened. Second, they must figure out whether what happened violated the law. The Rittenhouse case shows that the public is often tempted to do both badly. The desire to make this case a symbol of greater ills tempts us to ignore the text of the law—and thus the standards by which we are to hold persons accountable—and even the specific details at issue, twisting them to fit a narrative helpful to broader social concerns.

The judiciary's procedures push back against these inclinations. The trial process splits the two decisions made by the judicial power between judges and juries. Judges determine issues of law, explaining what the relevant statutes mean. Juries determine issues of fact, ascertaining whether an accused person committed the deed.

The role of judges helps us avoid the temptation to ignore the law. Judges possess some insulation from direct popular opinion and the attendant pressures. That independence allows them to stand against the mob in favor of the law as written. In doing so, they don't violate popular rule but guard the best manifestation of it: law, rather than temporary, violent popular passions.

Furthermore, the role of the jury prevents trials from being transformed into morality plays. Their deliberations must remain grounded in the real world, asking hard questions about what truly happened. They must do so, moreover, with a standard that favors the accused—proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This task and this posture help protect justice in cases like Rittenhouse's. Since the jury neither makes nor interprets the law, the task seeks to remove moral preening from the decision. The standard also guards against getting swept up by public outrage against a defendant.

We saw these qualities on display in the trial. Rather than wishing that principles of justice did not apply to Rittenhouse, we should mourn that they didn't extend farther—to those who were shot in the police confrontations precipitating last summer's unrest.

Such lessons don't determine which side one must take regarding the deep divisions underlying the public's view of the trial. But they do demand our respect and appreciation for the benefits of law and its judicial application—especially in divisive cases. And they demand our commitment to extending their benefits to all, friend or foe. In times as heated and divided as our own, we may too easily forget them. We do so at our own peril.

Adam Carrington is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.