Allard: Judicial Gymnastics
Rosemarie Aquilina opened the doors to a courtroom of catharsis.
“Sister survivors … the magic is in the power of your voice,” remarked Judge Rosemarie Aquilina at former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing. As she addressed the 156 women who testified against Nassar, her language and tone were unsettling. Her remarks sounded more like something one would expect to hear coming out of a megaphone at an activists’ march than from the bench in a courtroom. Her theatrical comments toward victims like, “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” did nothing but put a spotlight on the judge herself.
Aquilina’s decision to allow 156 victims to speak was unusual but not technically improper. Victim impact statements are intended to give the judge a sense of the effect the crime has had on its victims. Aquilina, however, appeared to use the statements to offer the victims, or survivors, an opportunity for catharsis. In a particularly telling moment, she told a victim to “leave your pain here and go out and do your magnificent things.”
Aquilina’s supporters have argued that there is no harm in letting these victims use the courtroom in a therapeutic way. By the time the sentencing hearing takes place, the verdict is in, so why not let the victims speak? But at what point does such an emotional outpour cross the line between a hearing and a therapy session? Why, of all places, does a victim need to air their grievances in a courtroom, which is supposed to be a rational and unbiased place? If a victim’s statement provides concrete information — perhaps about how likely the perpetrator is to reoffend — then by all means they should be heard. But the courtroom is no place for hours of emotional monologues for the sake of healing. The judge is not a therapist, and victims’ feelings do not determine the magnitude of the offense.
It is also worrisome that Aquilina will now be associated with this case forever as an outspoken advocate for victims of sexual assault. No matter how worthy their cause, judges cannot be seen as activists lest they threaten the impartiality of the entire justice system.
Aquilina’s dramatics were off-putting but paled in comparison to the cutting words she directed at Nassar. “Our Constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment,” she said. “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 some or many people to do to him what he did to others.”
Though vitriol against Nassar is warranted, threats of violence are not, and especially not from an impartial agent of the law. Sexual assault affects 80,000 inmates in the U.S. every year. Judges should be fighting this conduct, not trivializing it. Suppose a guard or other inmate took Aquilina’s remarks to heart and assaulted Nassar. Then suppose that suggesting sexual assault became a common practice among judges. Should all of the innocent inmates who were convicted because a judge or jury made the wrong call experience sexual violence because a mistaken judge thinks they deserve it?
Nassar is a despicable man. He used his position as a venerated doctor to manipulate and abuse hundreds of young patients. As far as the evidence goes, there is no argument to be made in his defense.
But, as the adage beloved by kindergarten teachers goes, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” And Aquilina’s use of the courtroom as a space for catharsis and the proliferation of her personal views is a wrong. It is wrong not only because she acted unprofessionally but because in doing so she added complexity and controversy to a case that should have been straightforward: Nassar was found guilty of committing terrible and illegal acts. Throw the book at him. Just don’t keep talking about it.