Who’s Judge Aquilina? The judge in the Larry Nassar case is standing up for victims

Finally, Dr. Larry Nassar has pleaded guilty to abusing over a hundred women throughout his career as a sports doctor, including gymnasts from Michigan State University and the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team. His sentencing hearing started last week, and as part of his guilty plea, he agreed to be present in court as victims read statements to the judge about the impact his alleged abuse has had on them. The reckoning of the victims is powerful enough, but their presence in the courtroom has been amplified by Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who is empowering the victims to speak and and ripping Nassar to shreds while she does it.

Judge Aquilina is being lauded in the media as the perfect judge for this case. Her disgust with Nassar’s crimes is palpable, and every time another victim speaks, she thanks them and tells them that they are “worthy” and deserve to heal. She’s like Judge Judy and Olivia Benson rolled into one human being, and frankly, we are slightly obsessed.

On Thursday, Nassar wrote a six-page letter to the judge saying that he didn’t think he could mentally listen to all of the victims give statements and read their letters to him out loud while he sat in the witness box. Originally, 88 women were signed up to speak, but now the list is up to 120 women who plan to come in and say their piece to their abuser. (Nassar is accused of abusing 150 women.) Nassar accused Aquilina of grandstanding and being thirsty for media attention and essentially begged not to have to listen to the women he molested over the course of two decades.

Aquilina was not having any of it at all. “Now this is entertaining to me,” she began when she addressed his complaint.

“I suspect you have watched too much television,” Aquilina said. “It’s delusional. You need to talk about these issues with a therapist and that’s not me,” she added, before telling him that she would make time for every single woman to come in and read a statement, as it was part of his guilty plea and because, as she put it, four or five days of listening to his victims was “significantly minor considering the hours of pleasure you had at their expense and ruining their lives.”

His sentencing was postponed until last Tuesday in light of the number of victims deciding to make statements in front of him, a lot of which has to do with the way Aquilina allowed and encouraged so many women to come forward. Their testimonies are hard to listen to, and since Nassar has already pleaded guilty, it would be easy for Aquilina to rule that one or two days of victim impact statements was enough. Instead, one by one, she calls the women to the podium, thanks them, and ensures them that justice is being served. And that their bravery is an integral part of making that happen.

Really, this woman is a national treasure.

Her position is clear, and she doesn’t mince words. She said that if it weren’t for the Constitution, she’d have at Nassar.

"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."

Every time a victim spoke, she thanked them and made room for them. She applauded them for having the courage to stand up in front of their accuser and share their story. Aquilina got personal, too. Amanda Cormier, who is now pregnant, spoke of losing her interest in song writing after being abused by Nassar at 15 years old, to which the judge responded:

"It seems to me, after this, you can finish writing. You found your voice. It's a strong, effective, brave voice, and you have a child coming. Maybe what you need to do is start and finish a lullaby."

She told another victim, “The monster who took advantage of you is going to wither, much like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the water gets poured on the witch and the witch withers away. That’s what’s going to happen to him, because as you get stronger, as you overcome —because you will  — he gets weaker and he will wither away. Prison is no place for a human being to live.”

It’s unusual for a judge to be so brazen and sympathetic for victims, but it’s not illegal and she’s not doing anything wrong. On the contrary, the way she’s turned her courtroom into a safe space for victims is remarkable. Nassar’s crimes are especially heinous, so it’s hard to imagine that a judge wouldn’t feel angry on behalf of the accusers. Still, we don’t see this kind of compassion all the time. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that Judge Aaron Persky listened to the Stanford rape victim tell her story and then gave an appallingly light sentence to her rapist, in the name of letting Brock Turner finish school and continue swimming. Nassar and Turner’s crimes are very different, to be sure, but in both cases the judge had a choice to stand up for victims. One did; the other didn’t.

In her statement on Friday, Aly Raisman, the captain of the 2012 and 2016 U.S. Women’s Gymanstics “Fierce Five,” said that at first, she wasn’t planning to read a statement in court, but watching the others speak throughout the week made her feel like she had to join them. She then called out Nassar and every single organization that enabled him, saying,”If just one adult listened and had the courage and character to act, this tragedy could have been avoided.” Judge Aquilina responded when she was finished, “I’m an adult, and I’m listening, and I’m sorry it took this long.” The judge added, “You were never the problem, but you are so much the solution.” She’s right, of course — but Aquilina’s affirmations and refusal let anyone ignore these women is also very much part of the solution.

Michigan State University is now calling for administrators who served during Nassar’s time there to step down, in part because of the impact statements. According to the New York Times, president Lou Anna K. Simon, who had allegedly been warned of Nassar’s behavior, issued a statement, saying:

"The testimony of Nassar’s victims this week made many of us, including me, listen to the survivors and the community in a different way. It is clear to the Board and me that a review by the Attorney General’s Office can provide the answers people need.

Because if the attention surrounding the victim statements, U.S.A. Gymnastics chose not to impose the $100,000 fine on McKayla Maroney for breaking her non-disclosure agreement and speaking in court. Maroney spoke last Thursday. Not only is Judge Aquilina empowering the victims of Nassar’s abuse by actually listening to them, her dedication to justice has made everyone else, like the organizations that enabled it and probably other victims of other men out there, take note. Hopefully other legal professionals are taking note. This is how you handle sexual assault and abuse in court.