Thanks largely to Republican political tactics, the courts were already losing legitimacy for millions of Americans before a jury found Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty Friday. Progressives are now afraid that President Joe Biden doesn't even see the problem.
Biden’s knee-jerk claim that the jury system works further convinced skeptical progressives that the president simply does not recognize the scale of the problems plaguing our courts.
Rittenhouse will face no penalties despite shooting three protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, ultimately killing two. Rittenhouse mounted a self-defense claim for each shooting, arguing that he had been the victim of repeated physical attacks by the protesters that left him in fear for his life that day in August 2020.
For critics on both the left and right, Rittenhouse’s acquittal offered further evidence of the legal deference shown to self-defense claims by white men, leading even conservative pundit Charlie Sykes to opine, “If Kyle were black, he’d be dead.”
Yet Biden, asked for his reaction to the news, immediately affirmed the judicial status quo. “I stand by what the jury has concluded,” he told reporters outside the White House shortly after Judge Bruce Schroeder adjourned the session. “The jury system works.”
It does? While the progressive left may be the loudest voice condemning the Rittenhouse verdict, it’s not alone. Our country has become increasingly skeptical of the judiciary, with only 54 percent of Americans claiming a great or fair amount of trust in our federal courts, compared to 67 percent just a year ago. The Supreme Court is experiencing a historic loss of faith, with only 40 percent of Americans supporting the high court — the lowest number in Gallup’s polling history. And how much you trust juries varies widely based on your race: Back in 2008, a Harris Interactive poll found over two-thirds of white people trusted the inherent fairness of juries compared to just over one-third of Black people.
While Biden was offering reassurance in the wake of the verdict, many prominent Democrats instead spoke to the injustice of what had occurred and the problems inherent in a process built to disadvantage nonwhite Americans.
In a tweet, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York condemned “a system functioning as designed and protecting those it was designed for,” adding, “My heart still breaks for the communities … who will be denied and deprived in similar scenes across the country.” And in a statement posted to Twitter on Friday evening, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said, “There are two justice systems in America,” and that, “It’s time to dismantle systemic racism & fundamentally transform our broken justice system.”
In attempting to bolster the legitimacy of the verdict and the judiciary, Biden’s knee-jerk claim that the jury system works further convinced skeptical progressives that the president simply does not recognize the scale of the problems plaguing our courts. And after unceremoniously dropping key lefty priorities like criminal justice reform from his legislative agenda over the summer, progressives are concerned that Biden is willing to treat the Rittenhouse verdict with kid gloves if it means moving on from a polarizing political fight.
The fact that Rittenhouse was turned into a right-wing political celebrity immediately after the shooting convinced many Democrats that the fix was in even before the trial began. Republican pundits at Fox News spent the months after Rittenhouse’s arrest hailing him as a vigilante peacekeeper. The Trump administration even ordered officials to portray Rittenhouse in a more sympathetic light. Prominent Republican lawmakers including far-right Rep. Matt Gaetz openly cast doubt on the legitimacy of any trial that ended with a jury finding Rittenhouse guilty.
For Americans on the political left, Rittenhouse’s acquittal quickly became another example of how the presumption of innocence, afforded so vigorously to Rittenhouse in the right-wing media, often remains out of reach for Black and brown Americans.
“I knew it,” is how journalist and author Keith Boykin put it. “Kyle Rittenhouse is proof that white people can still break the law, carry illegal weapons, shoot and kill people, and get away with it in America by shedding tears and claiming self-defense.”
Rittenhouse’s acquittal comes against a backdrop of broader Democratic concerns that the judiciary at the highest levels has been hopelessly captured by former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s aggressive push to pack the federal bench with hard-right Republican jurists. That skepticism is given weight by a flood of tough legal breaks for the Biden administration, including a recent decision by the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to block Biden’s Covid-19 vaccine requirement for large businesses.
Institutions caught in credibility spirals can sometimes be saved when a respected figure with legitimacy across the political spectrum stands up and restores American confidence in our public servants and process. With Republican lawmakers competing to offer the newly free Rittenhouse an internship and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler calling on the Department of Justice to consider possible federal charges, it’s unlikely such a unifying American figure exists.
Progressives may be fired up about the Rittenhouse verdict and the serious legitimacy challenges facing an increasingly politicized judiciary, but addressing America’s judicial crisis will take at least a generation. Public trust is difficult to gain but easy to squander, and lifetime appointments only drag out the process of replacing judges whose commitment to political party over the law corrodes the entire judicial branch.
Repairing our battered judiciary is popular not only among Democrats. But doing so requires acknowledging that the problem runs deeper than a questionable verdict in a single case. If Biden wants to unite his party and Americans behind a worthy fight, he’ll need to recognize how few people trust our justice system to deliver true justice.