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COLUMN: Judge Aquilina of the Nassar case deserves praise, not reproach



Judge Rosemarie Aquilina handled the sentencing of Larry Nassar just as she should have, with compassion for the survivors and contempt for the criminal. 

And yet, Graeme Wood wrote in the Atlantic that Aquilina crossed a line, implying she became a “pathetic and disgusting figure” when she lamented retributive justice could not be allowed for Larry Nassar.

If cruel and unusual punishment were constitutional, Aquilina said she would support those who want to harm Nassar, the same way he hurt others. 

I agree the statement proposes consequences no human being, no matter how vile, deserves.

I do not, however, support Wood’s conclusion that “the dignity of the proceedings was diminished” by these remarks. That claim is an insult not only to Aquilina, but also to the survivors whom she justifiably encouraged during the seven days in which more than 150 women delivered their victim impact statements. 

Unfortunately, Wood is not alone in his misguided feelings. Anne Gowen wrote TIME Magazine that Aquilina “hurt the cause of justice.” 

To those who accuse Aquilina of impropriety, I ask you to consider the consequences not of the judge’s words, but of your own. 

What I caution against, and what pains me to observe in the comments on Wood’s piece, is the impulse of readers who feel emboldened to latch onto Wood’s message and use it as justification to cast doubt on Aquilina’s abilities throughout the entire trial.

One comment suggests, for example, Aquilina has “soiled the cause of feminism.” Another proposes she was improperly “spouting off for the cameras.”

It is crucial to note, as New York University law professor Stephen Gillers said to the New York Times, the remarks for which Aquilina is receiving criticism came not during the trial but the sentencing hearing, at which point evidence had already been evaluated. 

“At a sentencing hearing,” Gillers explained, “a judge can say and is encouraged to say just what she thinks.” 

Consider what Aquilina actually accomplished in allowing so many women to come forward and in responding so empathetically to them when they did. 

A cultural shift is of clear necessity, and Aquilina was justified in taking an opportunity to catalyze that shift. It is paranoid and unwise to strip this moment of the vital elements of its context, which is exactly what Gowen did in writing that Aquilina’s behavior “leaves little room for consideration of mitigation or nuance.” 

Most of what Aquilina said during the sentencing hearing reflects the truth of the institutional corruption and social complicity that produced the horror of Nassar’s abuse in the first place.

To reframe her comments as a betrayal of the public’s as Gowen did to TIME Magazine “trust that judges will fairly and impartially apply the law” draws attention away from their capacity to promote change.

Survivors often don’t speak out because of the stigma surrounding the abuse they suffered, but Aquilina managed to diminish that stigma enough to make more than 150 women feel confident enough to tell their stories.

Getting rid of a stigma contributes to meaningful progress. Tearing down the women who work to destroy that stigma does not.

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