Judges are not “fierce advocates,” despite the wishes of New York Times’ copy editors. Judges are, ideally, impartial, using their authority to apply the law. Ingham County Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina conveniently abandoned that role by prioritizing the feelings of the “sister survivors.” whom former U.S. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar sexually assaulted, over Michigan’s charge to jurists regarding the avoidance of judicial impropriety.
A judge should respect and observe the law. At all times, the conduct and manner of a judge should promote public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. Without regard to a person’s race, gender, or other protected personal characteristic, a judge should treat every person fairly, with courtesy and respect.
Nassar’s sentencing hearing is a clear example of a judge straying from promoting the public’s trust in a fair and impartial judiciary. Let’s begin with Judge Aquilina’s decision allowing over one hundred and sixty victim impact statements across seven days.
Victim impact statements are theoretically allowed as a means of giving a crime victim the chance to describe their experience to the court. Defense lawyers aren’t typically fans of them, and too many can arguably have a prejudicial effect against a defendant.
Contrast Nasssar’s hearing with that of Dylann Roof, the Charleston shooter responsible for the deaths of nine churchgoers. Judge Richard Gergel admonished the State’s list of thirty-eight statements, cautioning against a “spectacle”. David Bruck, the attorney assigned to advise Roof, claimed the proceeding violated “every principle restraining victim impact statements under the 8th Amendment.”
Strangely, no advocate stood to question admitting impact statements from over 160 victims, including gold medal Olympians, might prejudice a jurist’s decision. It’s hard to imagine Judge Aquilina even entertaining such an argument.
Her open contempt for Nassar was on full display while reading excerpts from a six page, single spaced letter Nassar penned to Judge Aquilina over how the excessive victim impact statements had taken a toll on Nassar’s mental health.
At the end of Judge Aquilina’s recitation, she tore up Nassar’s letter and threw it away in a moment destined for internet infamy.
At the close of the hearing, Judge Aquilina spoke directly to Dr. Nassar before delivering her 40-175 year sentence running consecutively with the 60 year plea deal Nassar struck in Federal Court for child pornography charges. A few quotes from Judge Aquilina demonstrate the absolute hatred imbued through seven days and over 160 statements from young women.
“Inaction is an action. Silence is indifference. Justice requires a voice. And that’s what happened in this court.  buckets of water were placed on your so-called ‘match’ that got out of control,”
“I believe in individual sentencing, and I believe in the Constitution…I also believe these survivors.”
“These quotes, these “air quotes…” I will never be able to look at them again without thinking of you and your despicable acts.”
“It was not treatment what you did. It was not medical. There was no medical evidence that was ever brought.”
“I wouldn’t send my dogs to you sir.”
“As much as it was my honor and privilege to hear the sister survivors, it is my honor and privilege to sentence you.”
“Anywhere you walk, destruction will occur to those most vulnerable.”
“Our Constitution does 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 someone or many people to do to him what he did to others.”
And finally, on pronouncement of sentence, the most telling quote of them all.
“I just signed your death warrant.” (Emphasis mine.)
Judge Aquilina’s sentence of up to 175 years in addition to Nassar’s 60 year Federal sentence flies in the face of the 8th Amendment. She could have chosen a sentence reflecting the charges of the seven young women who accused Nassar of sexual assault. Instead, she used one hundred and sixty one other victims’ experiences while handing down life plus cancer.
Time will tell whether Nassar’s counsel or another attorney takes this decision and files an appeal on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment. Judge Aquilina’s antics certainly give credibility to an appeal on those grounds, but in the era of #MeToo it’s hard to say whether a lawyer is ready to stake his career on an appeal of such a high profile sexual assault case.
Larry Nassar is a despicable human being for the things he did to so many young women under his care while working under the mantle of the United States Olympics Gymnastics team. That doesn’t give Judge Aquilina the right to throw away her duties to be fair, impartial, and promote public confidence in the judiciary in an attempt to correct what she perceived as manifest injustice.
On a cold day in January, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina faced a difficult choice. She could either make a principled decision and uphold the responsibilities imposed by the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct, or she could listen and believe the experiences of the young women Nassar assaulted and cast her impartiality to the winds.
As a wise old man would say of the situation: “She chose…poorly.“