The powerhouse judge: Rosemarie Aquilina

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina delivered a landmark ruling that spoke directly to the ‘MeToo’ era earlier this week after she sentenced serial rapist and former Olympic doctor Larry Nassar to 175 years in prison. TEODOR RELJIC digs into the history of this powerhouse figure, born to a German mother and a Maltese father...

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina
Judge Rosemarie Aquilina

Reams have already been written about Judge Rosemarie Aquilina in the wake of the blistering verdict she delivered to Larry Nassar – former Olympic doctor accused of sexually molesting 156 young girls in his care from as far back as 1992; cases which rent families apart and even led to two instances of suicide.

Or perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that pages upon online pages have been written about the hearings themselves, rather than the Judge at the centre of it.

“My secretary informed me that I have a growing stack of requests from print media, from television, from magazines, from around the world, literally. This story is not about me. It never was about me,” Aquilina said soon after the case had done its first spin on the 24-hour media cycle, adding that if she had anything else to add, she would say it after the case has gone through its appeals stage.

“You could hardly blame my international colleagues from pouncing on this piece of news, however, or for making it such high priority in their respective media outlets.”

The computer does it. God’s giving them to me – if anybody is. I think certain things are put in your hands

With a sanguine flair that some argued “crossed the line” of supposedly objective judicial behaviour, Aquilina told Nasser, point-blank, that with her verdict, she is, “signing [his] death warrant”.

Having already pleaded guilty, Nasser now faces a grand total of 175 years in jail, with Aquilina saying, “It is my honour and privilege to sentence you”.

To salt the wound further, Aquilina added, “Our Constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment. If it did… I would allow some or many people to do to him what he did to others” – a comment that ran chills down many a spine, given that it doesn’t take much to read between the lines and notice that this basically translates to, “I hope you get raped in prison”.

But beyond the both empowering and controversial language employed by Aquilina herself, the judge’s decision to leave the floor open to Nasser’s victims to detail their stories of abuse to their attacker’s face is what really felt like a climactic moment, of sorts, for the ‘#MeToo era’. Though this does not strictly go against any court norms, the sheer number of victims was enough to make the move notable – also extending, as it did, the hearing to seven days – even more so given that it was all broadcast live, with the testimonies still available online.

Predictably, Nassar himself was far from comfortable at the prospect of being forced to sit through a recitation of all of his wrongdoings by the victims themselves. Particularly when his behaviour led to not one, but two instances of suicide – one of former athlete Chelsea Markham (her mother Deborah spoke in her daughter’s absence at the Nassar hearing), another of the father of yet another one of his victims – a tragic result of his initial scepticism about his daughter’s complaints.

And Aquilina’s rebuff to a pleading e-mail from Nasser – who wrote to the judge a week before the case that hearing his victims speak about their plight right in front of him would be “too much to take” – was yet another example of the judge’s uncompromising stance.

“Spending four or five days listening to them is significantly minor considering the hours of pleasure you’ve had at their expense and ruining their lives,” Aquilina told him.


Maltese father, German mother

But who is Judge Rosemarie Aquilina? As hinted at earlier – and, apparently, in direct contradiction of a case that has attracted so much media attention – we are not privy to all that much information about Aquilina’s private life and personal history beyond the basics. (Though perhaps our assumption that we somehow should be says more about our own cultural assumptions of anyone who makes the media cycle, than anything else.)

We do know that she does, indeed, have Maltese blood though – from her father’s side. The daughter of an emigrating European couple who “met on a train” (her mother is German) Aquilina came to the US as a toddler, while her Malta-born father later went on to produce wine in Argentina, creating the Aquilina Wines brand.

“From what I see here, I don’t want to drink alcohol. I’m not going to be seen in public drinking, and in private, I don’t drink it either. There’s nothing good that comes of it. But I understand it’s a very good wine.”

Aquilina said this in an interview with Washtenaw County Legal News back in July of 2014; years before the Nassar case, of course, but already hinting at Aquilina’s tendency to attract notably high-profile cases – something she looks at in quasi-religious terms.

“The computer does it. God’s giving them to me – if anybody is. I think certain things are put in your hands.”

Among these cases is that of a serial rapist she sent to prison in late 2014, who subsequently lashed out at her and threatened her family. In that same year, Aquilina also ruled that Detroit’s bankruptcy filing went against the Michigan Constitution and state law – even writing a letter to then-president Barack Obama alerting him about the worrying implications of that same case.

But Aquilina’s reputation was perhaps given the ultimate seal of “power-branding” during her time in the military – she became the first female Judge Advocate General (JAG) in the Michigan Army National Guard – where she was dubbed as ‘Barracuda Aquilina’.

And in what is perhaps the most telling precursor to the Larry Nassar case, she was even instrumental in amending a statute so as to make things harder for child abusers in the future.

“I didn’t wait for a lobbyist,” she told Washtenaw County Legal News. “I simply went and got what I needed because I understand the legislative process. I know how to get it done. I don’t wait for people to sit at luncheons and decide what they’re going to do. I go and get it done.”

“There’s no reason I can’t do it. And I do.”


Representing the reckoning

The media will of course be awaiting more commentary from Aquilina with baited breath in the coming months and, given how this grandmother-of-two (who in turn gave birth to a third daughter at the age of 52) does not just have legal and academic credentials but is also a novelist in her spare time, perhaps it’s not unrealistic to expect an expanded commentary on the case in book-form one of these days.

(She is an adjunct professor at Cooley Law School and at Michigan State University College of Law, and has to date published two crime novels, with a third one on the way).

America may not be going through some of its best “PR moments” on the international scene right now, and there’s certainly a lot to be questioned about buying into the myth of the American Dream hook, line and sinker – the idea that one can be the master of their own destiny if they just put in the work with the necessary zeal, grit and conviction. But it appears that this half-Maltese, half-German judge has done precisely that, and at a crucial time too.

Now that speaking truth to power has become a key priority of public discourse in more ways than one – with a “reckoning” on the perpetrators of sexual assault being chief among these – it’s no surprise that a judge who speaks not only with great eloquence but also with great force has become a rallying point.