Columns

Yes It’s True: We want our judges to ‘hang ’em high’

Bruce Schroeder

Richard M. Shuster

While watching the conduct of the judge in the Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial in Kenosha, Wisc., my memories of a similar judge in Hastings resurfaced.

Bruce Schroeder’s stern lecture to prosecutors and his gruff and unpredictable demeanor reminds me of days gone by with Barry County Circuit Judge Richard M. Shuster.

If you look at Shuster’s obituary from 2018, you’d get the impression that he was a pillar of the community, a really nice man who helped the poor, the unfortunate and wildlife. Indeed, he gave attention and funding to environmental causes, he supported programs that benefitted the community and was a solid member of Rotary.

But there were two Richard Shusters, the praiseworthy gentleman in the public arena who at the same time was a malevolent tyrant in his courtroom.

I had the misfortune of running afoul of Shuster in the mid-1990s when I oversaw the publishing of a front page photo of Candy Lawrence hugging her attorney after receiving a not guilty verdict of a charge of aiding and abetting her husband, Steve, in the arson murder of his father, Willard Lawrence. Steve was convicted in a high-profile case, but Candy later was acquitted.

Shuster’s problem with me was that he believed I failed to obscure the identity of jurors behind the hugging victors. I disagreed, but it didn’t matter.

I had to hold the telephone a good distance from my ear because the judge was screaming so loudly at me and threatening me with contempt of court.

I had ace photographer Shelly Sulser (who today is one of the best bird photographers in the land) pencil out the faces of the jurors in the background. She did such a good job that I couldn’t see any of the jurors’ faces and I agreed their identities needed to be protected.

So I didn’t appreciate Shuster’s threats of throwing me in the hoosegow, almost on a personal whim.

Whenever I sat in his court, I couldn’t help but notice his autocratic approach to the law, an attitude that if you were accused of wrongdoing it’s because you were guilty.

I remember my first day as editor of J-Ad Graphics I was told the circuit judge (Shuster) was of the “hang ‘em high” school of jurisprudence. Time and time again, he seemed a bit over the top in sentencing anyone found guilty, sometimes exceeding state guidelines.

Yet I also learned he was terrifically popular with common everyday Barry County folks, who liked his style of bullying and intimidation of evildoers. They deserved it. I also learned that he had a history of judges at higher levels softening his harsh sentences and at one time he approached 40% of his rulings on civil disputes overturned or reduced on appeal.

But that didn’t matter to the unwashed masses.

I particularly was appalled by the case of a Baltimore Township teen-ager who went on a vandalism spree and damaged and turned over cemetery tombstones.

The youth showed his remorse by single-handedly cleaning up the damage he did, personally apologizing to the victims and throwing himself on the mercy of the court. The victims collectively submitted a letter on his behalf, expressing their wishes to have the matter settled without any further punishment.

Shuster wasn’t having any of it. He handed down a jail sentence and insisted the youth make further restitution, yet another instance of his heavy-handed “hang ‘em high” approach to the law.

In the courtroom he acted like Mussolini, like an all-powerful angry emperor and did not tolerate any dissent. Word got around that drunken drivers and other wrongdoers pleaded with authorities to send them to any other judge than Shuster.

But this bullying and intimidation was lauded by the public. He was well loved and regarded as a gatekeeper on behalf of law-abiding God-fearing citizens. To run against him in an election was political suicide.

This was a guy who was willing to apply questionable behavior without regard for fairness, and his constituency loved it.

The author of a manufactured book about Hastings as one of the “Best 100 Small Towns in America” said near the very top of his chapter that one of the community’s greatest assets was a no-nonsense judge who was willing to send criminals up the river.

Shuster’s detractors often would ask, “Who appointed him God?”

It didn’t matter. He gave the people what they wanted.

2 Comments

  • Obviously someone who has never seen a real, truly tyrannical judge rule a courtroom. The residents of Livingston County hosted one for 15 years. Judge Theresa Brennan, appointed from zero qualifications by Jennifer Granholm. Ms. Brennan, now a disbarred felon was a true tyrant.

  • When you mention Gov. Granholm selecting Theresa Brennan as a judge, look at how she operates at the federal level as head of Dept. of Energy.

    When asked the obvious about domestic oil production and opening the pipelines at the level during the Trump administration, she laughed! SHE LAUGHED?

    I always knew she was a huge moron, she proved that while Governor of this state. She still retains the crown of Moron Extrodinaire!

    The Biden administration places all of the future of American energy on wind, solar, and battery powered vehicles. When the wind is low or is calm, or the sun is obscured or during the night, no power is generated. Billions spent for at most 10% of energy needs. The remainder is supplied by fossil fuels.

    Battery powered vehicles (BPV) are expensive, limited in range, and once batteries are depleted, there is no process known to recycle them, unlike acid/lead based batteries in conventional vehicles. There is no answer for semi-tractor vehicles that are operated by battery. Recharging is limited in time and locations so using a BPV is a cycle of traveling 250-300 miles and stopping to recharge. Long trips will be compromised for time spent on the road.

    And where will the power to recharge the BPV come from? Fossil fuel or atomic powered power plants. So what has transpired using a BPV? A battery that needs frequent charging, unrecyclable depleted batteries, and more use of fossil fuels to generate recharging power. And each wind turbine costs millions, need frequent servicing, and aren’t cheaply erected or recycled. Payback from using wind turbines is terrible compared to fossil fuel.

    We are being sold a boondoggle thinking we are doing the right thing. Guess humans are too smart creating their demise?

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