She called them “sister survivors.” She told them to push away nightmares. She thanked them and said their voices were heard. That they were not alone.
In a week’s time, Ingham County (Mich.) Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina garnered national attention even as she gave a platform to more than 150 women and girls, allowing them to pour out in detail the sexual abuses they say were perpetrated against them by Larry Nassar, a former sports medicine doctor at Michigan State and USA Gymnastics.
“He’s gone,” Aquilina told one woman during seven days of victim statements, according to the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. “Your words replace what he’s done to you.”
Nassar’s sentencing hearing ended Wednesday with a 40- to 175-year sentence in state prison and harsh words from Aquilina: “I’ve just signed your death warrant.”
After leveling her judgment, Aquilina noted from the bench an extraordinary number of requests from media outlets for interviews and said she would not make any statements until the appellate period is over — and only then with a victim by her side.
“This story is not about me,” she told those in her courtroom and watching on live-stream video. “It never was about me.”
But the judge has received praise nationally as an advocate for victims and her actions in recent days made headlines around the globe.
The New York Times reported she has a reputation for “blunt talk.” The Guardian called her a style icon “working hard to right wrongs.”
In Michigan, she has spent years presiding over criminal and civil cases, first elected to Ingham County Circuit Court in 2008.
Aquilina’s biography on the court’s website ticks off a long list of accomplishments, on top of her years on the bench: professor, first female military lawyer in the Michigan Army National Guard, author of fiction, mother and grandmother.
A 2014 profile in the Washtenaw County Legal News starts: “If you ever think you have too much on your plate, consider a day in the life of Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina.”
The piece describes her as an “outspoken, self-sufficient multi-tasker.”
In the article, Aquilina is quoted saying she doesn’t take no for an answer. She said: “I stand up for people and say, ‘We’re going to do what’s right.’ “
Many have applauded Aquilina’s approach to Nassar’s sentencing, which included allowing people who said they were his victims to recount their ordeals even though Nassar hadn’t been charged in their cases. Some of the women thanked her in court.
“I think any time we can give a survivor that wants a chance to speak and tell their truth, we are affording them an opportunity to heal,” said Erin Roberts, executive director of Lansing-based End Violent Encounters. “There were also outstanding advocates on site to provide support to them, which is also important because telling your story, sharing your truth is also a vulnerable time.”
Though many have commended Aquilina for giving victims a forum to speak, one judge who has known her for years criticized her as showing favoritism.
Ingham County Circuit Judge William Collette said Nassar’s sentencing was “the most violative” sentencing proceeding he can recall. Collette questioned why Aquilina would allow women who are not part of the criminal case to address Nassar in court. He also found it inappropriate for her to tell Nassar, “I just signed your death warrant.”
“There has to be some semblance of fairness, no matter how much you hate the person,” Collette said.
“Doing justice is one thing,” he said. “It is not a judge’s function to get people healed.”
Aquilina is known to be multidimensional.
She is a mother of five children and an author of crime thrillers, including one recently published. Her agent, Linda Langton, said Aquilina has “a page-turning voice” whose writing is informed by her work as a judge.
Aquilina is also a law professor at Michigan State University College of Law and Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, according to her profile on the court’s website. She spent 20 years in the Michigan Army National Guard, according to the profile.
Speaking Wednesday on the Fox News show Outnumbered, Judge Andrew Napolitano said Aquilina is an “American hero.”
“Her behavior was nothing short of heroic,” he said, “not just for victims, not just for women, but for the entire criminal justice system to do the right thing in a methodical and rational way.”
Aquilina has been involved in major cases before.
She was briefly in the spotlight when Detroit’s historic municipal bankruptcy began in July 2013.
Shortly after Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr filed for bankruptcy protection, Aquilina ordered the filing to be withdrawn, saying it violated state law and pension protections in the Michigan Constitution. The judge even ordered that a copy of her ruling be sent to then-President Barack Obama.
Ultimately her order was moot as the case was decided in federal court.
Ingham County Circuit Judge Laura Baird said the attention Aquilina has received in the Nassar case is not by design.
“I don’t think she seeks publicity, but she’s unique enough that she gets publicity,” said Baird. “I think she just did what she thought was right.”
Baird met Aquilina while they were campaigning in the 1990s — Baird was running for state representative and Aquilina for state senate. Baird won and Aquilina lost, but they became friends and eventually both became Ingham County Circuit judges.
Aquilina has a vast amount of energy, much more than the average person, Baird said, and she has an uncanny ability to mentally compartmentalize her responsibilities and focus on one at a time.
While she downplayed Aquilina’s intention to garner any praise, Baird said the voice Aquilina gave to Nassar’s victims will have an enduring effect on other victims of abuse.
“It inspires them to realize that they can be heard,” Baird said. “To help them get through it and realize they’re not alone.”