Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, 61, opens the door to her courtroom, her left arm doling her access card out with a flourish. She wants to explain why, in the most well-known sentencing hearing of her life, she changed procedure.
Normally, she explains, the defendant in a sentencing hearing is seated toward the back right of the courtroom, near the empty jury box. When it came to the case of disgraced former Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar — who she sentenced in January 2018 to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing minors — she had him sit right at the front.
She said she was worried about a fight. Aquilina was the first female Judge Advocate General in the Michigan Army National Guard, and said her military training led her to believe both the survivors giving impact statements and Nassar himself could be in danger if he was seated at the back, close to where members of the public would be seated.
“I’m looking at this as a military operation,” Aquilina said. “We have a defendant who has an absolute right to be protected as well. The best way to protect him in a crowded situation like this was to be here.”
This, she says, is how she approaches every case — looking at every possible factor to allow both the prosecution and defendant to have ample time during the process.
But the Nassar case was not just another line on the docket. The week of sentencing made international news, and the “sister survivors” — as Aquilina dubbed the 160-plus women who read their victim impact statements in court — have become central figures in the #MeToo generation.
As has Aquilina.
Her attitude during the sentencing was unique. She spoke directly to the victims, telling them to “leave your pain here, and go out and do magnificent things.” The image of her tossing a letter Nassar wrote defending himself over her shoulder — with the same flourish she used to open the door to the courtroom — made her a Twitter icon. But telling Nassar, “I just signed your death warrant” drew criticism from some who said her behavior was unbecoming of a judge.
“Bloodthirsty retribution undermines the image of judicial impartiality. The line is just too much,” tweeted Emily Bazelon, a New York Times magazine staff writer and research fellow at Yale Law School.
In fact, Nassar’s attorneys have filed appeals on the grounds that Aquilina’s behavior proved she was not an unbiased figure. These claims were determined not valid by the Michigan attorney general’s office in May.
“Everybody’s entitled to an appeal. It’ll be what it is,” Aquilina said.
Her conduct, she said, was a reaction to Nassar’s. She said the control he had over his countless victims during his medical career was something he tried to exercise in the courtroom.
“He didn’t like that he had a female prosecutor, female judges, female detective — he didn’t like that,” Aquilina said. “He was trying with his behavior to gain control, to gain attention, to not look at the girls, to control them that way. And I wasn’t having anything to do with that. So I can be criticized. But I know that at the end of the day, I was taking his power from him and giving it back to the girls.
“That was important to them and their healing.”
She talked at length about the doubts she faced every step of her career. As an aide for state Senator John Kelly in the 1980s, she said people on the senate floor didn’t believe that a woman was there to do legal work.
“Nine times out of 10, I was asked to get coffee for other senators,” Aquilina said. “I was asked to sew on buttons, whose girlfriend was I and what was I doing there. And I’d stop them, and say, ‘I’m a lawyer. And I’m the chief aide.’”
Her singular attitude is something she’s has had for as long as anyone around her can remember.
Mike McDaniel, an associate dean at Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School in Lansing who served with Aquilina in the National Guard in the 1980s and 90s, said her preparation impressed him at the time more than anything.
“I think there was a certain intensity even back then,” McDaniel said. “But I think her diligence and her preparation resulted in her success.”
Lansing defense attorney Kristina Lyke, who has tried numerous cases in front of Aquilina and plans on running for judgeship in the future, said she wants her courtroom one day to function like Aquilina’s.
“I always wanted to have my courtroom ran like ... a People’s Court,” she said. “Because you’re not just listening to the prosecutor, you’re not just listening to the defense attorney. You’re not just listening to the victim, you’re not just listening to the defendant, you’re listening to everyone. And I think that you have to have a lot of patience to do that. And she does.”
Charlie Palmer, who was a judge in the National Guard while she was a trial attorney, called her a “feeler” on the Myers-Briggs Personality Test.
“She’s clearly an extroverted feeler,” he said. “And she tends to make her decision based upon fairness to the people rather than the rigid rule of law.”
Aquilina touched on that topic unprompted as well, saying she does not believe sentences should be rigid for all crimes.
She brought up the hypothetical case of two shoplifters — one being a greedy person of means, and one being a struggling mother who cannot afford a nice dress for her daughter. Aquilina, who immigrated from Germany at the age of 2 with a passport marked “stateless,” said she doesn’t believe those two people should be punished the same, even if the law states they committed the same crime.
Since the Nassar case, Aquilina has become a public figure. She’s appeared on NBC News, has headlined women’s sports festivals and has made paid public speaking appearances while being represented by the famed Creative Artists Agency.
She has spoken publicly about the importance of hearing the stories of sexual assault survivors, and upheld the plea agreement written by then-Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis that said any woman wishing to make a victim impact statement during Nassar’s sentencing was welcome, not just the seven for whom he was being prosecuted.
Povilaitis declined to comment for this story.
In their appeal, Nassar’s attorneys said Aquilina has attempted to capitalize on the story to increase her profile and earning opportunities.
McDaniel said he couldn’t understand why anyone would criticize Aquilina for trying to bring attention to the issue of sexual abuse, noting that any form of silence protects predators.
“I don’t think (increasing her profile) is her motivation,” he said. “I think the motivation is to get the word out about hidden or ignored sexual abuse to young women.”
Aquilina said she’s received hundreds of letters from women telling her their stories of sexual abuse and thanking her for publicly believing survivors and denouncing a predator.
“That is both an honor and very humbling to think that people trust me with that, and that I’ve made a difference,” she said.
In addition to her position on the bench and speaking engagements she has engaged in since then, Aquilina also teaches both at Cooley Law School and at both the MSU College of Law. She has written novels and has plans for more.
With all those different roles to juggle — along with being a divorced mother with three of five children and her elderly parents living at home — the question had to be asked: Why stay on the bench?
“I guess maybe I’m here to break the mold,” she said. “I was raised to believe that in America, everything is possible. Our justice system is one of the people, not one of the heavy-handed judge. I like to include the people in my decision and follow the law. I think that’s how it’s truly meant to operate. Without doing that, we’re broken.”