Aquilina: ‘I support the girls’ in Nassar, MSU case

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

The Lansing judge whose sentencing of Dr. Larry Nassar brought national attention to the case in January has criticized Michigan State University’s recent handling of the victims.

Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, during her first interview since the sentencing, also defended her fierce advocacy for the victims during and after the sentencing.

“I support the girls,” she told The Detroit News on Tuesday. “I said that at the sentencing. Nothing has changed there.”

The paper contacted Aquilina after she used her Facebook page to repost a TV news video of an MSU rally Friday calling for interim President John Engler and the trustee board to step down.

She told The News that Engler should have allowed Nassar victim Kaylee Lorincz to speak longer at a school trustee meeting last week. Lorincz was limited to three minutes as she described how Engler allegedly offered her $250,000 to settle her lawsuit against the school.

“I don’t like girls being shut down,” Aquilina said Tuesday. “Everyone has the right to be heard.”

Asked whether Engler and the board should step down, she declined comment, saying: “I won’t get into a political mess. I’m supporting the girls.”

She said that, once a verdict is reached, it’s proper for a judge to take a stance.

“I’m not fair and impartial. The case is over,” she said. “No judge is fair and impartial (after the verdict). That’s for before the sentencing.”

It was the latest example of how she has continued to support the victims of Nassar, an MSU sports doctor who sexually abused scores of girls and women during supposed medical treatment.

On her Facebook page, she has liked comments supporting the victims and posted photos of herself posing with various victims, including Lorincz.

During the sentencing, as former patients described how they were affected by the abuse, Aquilina punctuated their remarks with her own supportive comments.

“It’s not just me listening,” she told them. “It’s the world. This is your moment. Tell them.”

Her public demeanor has raised some legal eyebrows, with critics saying it could undermine the image of judicial restraint.

But legal scholars said they didn’t believe the judge’s actions could affect a possible appeal. They drew a distinction between what a judge says during a trial and during the sentencing.

“Sentencing is much different than an umpire just calling balls and strikes,” said Paul Cassell, a former federal judge who teaches at the University of Utah College of Law. “The judge is perfectly entitled to be the voice of the community she represents.”

Aquilina’s advocacy continued Sunday as she reposted the video of the MSU demonstration, and liked several comments calling for Engler and the Board of Trustees to resign. On Monday, her Twitter account retweeted a blog post headlined “Breaking: Nassar Judge Rosemarie Aquilina Backs Survivors Call For Engler And Board Of Trustees To Resign At MSU.”

“So PROUD of you!” she wrote on Facebook. “They can’t keep up with you and your Sister Survivors. They have no idea just how fierce you and your ARMY is.”

Aquilina told The News she wasn’t worried about her advocacy affecting a possible appeal, but didn’t want to discuss other aspects of the case until the deadline for filing an appeal was over. Nassar has six months from the January sentencing to file an appeal.

Meanwhile, just as Aquilina has championed the victims, the victims and their supporters continue to champion her. Frustrated how their complaints were handled by MSU and USA Gymnastics, they felt Aquilina was the first person who truly listened to them.

And her opening of the court to so many victims, besides bringing national attention to the issue, also served as catharsis for the witnesses, they said.

The hosannas come daily to Aquilina’s Facebook page.

“You are my favorite person,” wrote Jennifer O’Brien of Henderson, Nevada. “You are my hero. You are such an incredible person and an incredibly sweet angel.”

Josefina Hunter of McLean, Virginia, said the judge has been a gift to the victims.

“Your voice has helped so many of us,” wrote Hunter. “Thank you for everything you do — and being a light on an otherwise dreary path.”

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell