Judge Aquilina emerged into the national spotlight for presiding over the sexual assault sentencing hearing of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. (Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)
Moments after Judge Rosemarie Aquilina dropped a 40- to 175-year prison sentence on serial sex abuser Larry Nassar, telling the defendant it was “your death warrant,” she commented on the media attention surrounding the former USA Gymnastics doctor’s case in recent weeks.
“I know you all would like to talk to me,” Aquilina said from the bench in Lansing, Mich. “My secretary informed me that I have a growing stack of requests from print media, from television, from magazines, from around the world, literally. This story is not about me. It never was about me.”
Aquilina then said until the appeals process was over, she would not be making any public comments. Only then, alongside survivors, would she answer questions. “I don’t know what more I can possibly say,” the judge added.
But it was exactly what Aquilina had already said from the bench that has made her a figure of intense international interest.
Throughout a seven day hearing wired with emotion, Aquilina was a sympathetic advocate for the more than 160 “sister-survivors” who appeared to share the horror and shame of Nassar’s abuse. In the process, the cowboy-boot-wearing daughter of European immigrants was profiled on the front-page of the New York Times. On Fox News, contributor Judge Andrew Napolitano dubbed her an “American hero.” Her fashion sense was celebrated in the Guardian. She was immortalized in a GIF.
Critics, however, are now beginning to question whether the judge’s compassion and advocacy for the survivors pushed beyond her judicial mandate.
“Holding Nassar accountable hugely important,” Emily Bazelon, a New York Times Magazine staff writer and legal expert, tweeted this week. “But blood thirsty retribution undermines image of judicial impartiality. This line is just too much.”
Others experts and attorneys have piped up with similar concerns over the judge’s behavior. In the other corner, however, Aquilina is being championed for turning a gruesome sex abuse scandal — and a high-profile pressure point in the #MeToo movement — into a milestone.
“I have to think this was really a pivotal moment in our country’s history in regards to victim’s rights,” Paul G. Cassell, a former federal judge and current professor at the University of Utah’s College of Law, told The Washington Post. “The whole country began to appreciate how important victims are in the sentencing process.”
In a way, Aquilina explained her full-throttle support for the survivors in the courtroom during the sentencing Wednesday. “I am not really well-liked because I speak out,” the judge said. “I don’t have many friends because I speak out. If you ask me a question, you better be ready for the answer. I speak out because I want change. Because I don’t believe in hiding the truth. I am not saying I am always right. But I try.”
According to a 2014 profile in Legal News, Aquilina’s father, a urologist from Malta, and her German mother immigrated to the United States when the future judge and her sister were toddlers. Aquilina was naturalized when she was 12. After earning her undergraduate degree at Michigan State University, she entered law school as a married mother of two small children. Later, Aquilina worked 10 years with a Michigan state senator, then joined the military, serving as the first woman JAG officer in the Michigan Army National Guard.
“I don’t let anyone create the mold for me,” she told Legal News. “I’m going to make my own mold. I stand up for people and say, ‘We’re going to do what’s right.’ ”
She first ran for judge in 2004. In her spare time, she has written two crime novels.
“I love my job,” Aquilina told the Lansing State Journal after the publication of her book “Triple Cross Killer” last December. “I think I do a good job for Ingham County. I also think that I listen to the people in front of me, that if you interviewed them they would agree that they were heard, that they had their day in court. I think that’s really important.”
Giving a voice to the survivors was key to Aquilina’s sentencing hearing. But the judge also displayed a stone-cold edge toward Nassar — an attitude that may have crossed the line, some say.
“I would not send my dogs to you, sir,” the judge told Nassar at one point, before dismissively tossing aside a self-serving letter the defendant had written to the court. She also mused in court that U.S. Constitution did not allow for cruel and unusual punishment. “If it did, I have to say, I might allow what he did to all of these beautiful souls ― these young women in their childhood ― I would allow some or many people to do to him what he did to others.”
Many took the comment to suggest Nassar’s own possible sexual assault as retaliation.
In the New Republic, writer Andrew Cohen argued that in her “relentless hostility and anger toward Nassar” Aquilina had “abdicated her role as an impartial arbiter and became instead a tribune for prosecutors and the victims. . . . She did this by treating Nassar as if he were something far less than an American entitled to all of the constitutional protections of a fair tribunal.”
Rachel Marshall, a public defender in Oakland, Cal., echoed a similar point in Vox. “No matter how good Aquilina’s intentions, for a judge to make herself the face of a social cause poses a threat to the fairness of our system,” she wrote. “We rely on judges to ensure that people’s lives are decided by neutral, independent arbiters who impartially evaluate the evidence and apply the law. That’s the only way we can trust in a system that has such awesome power to take away people’s liberty.”
Former federal judge Cassell takes the opposite position. Cassell is careful to point out there is a difference between the trial and sentencing phases of the criminal proceedings.
He told The Post that Aquilina’s decision to give each victim an opportunity to speak could be the trial’s great legacy. For decades, attorneys and judges have sidelined victims, viewing them as overemotional “pieces of evidence” that have no place in the logical clockwork-like process of the legal system.
“But the judge is supposed to make the punishment fit the crime,” Cassell said. “How do we know the ramification of this crime if we don’t hear from the victims?”
In recent years, states — including Michigan — have passed constitutional amendments giving victims the opportunity to provide impact statements during sentencing. Three states — Nevada, Kentucky, and Oklahoma — are scheduled to vote on their own versions in November. “We want a system where young women like this can come forward; we want a system that honors that.”
As for Aquilina’s attitude in court, Cassell also argued the Michigan judge was performing another unique aspect of the legal system: channeling the will of society.
“The difference between the state of nature and a civilized society is we have a process where the views of society can be expressed in an orderly way,” Cassell said. Aquilina was able to voice “society’s revulsion at what this man had done in an orderly process,” he explained.