Archive for January 24, 2018

Michigan judge provides clinic on showing compassion to crime victims at sentencing   4 comments

Michigan trial judge Rosemarie Aquilina is presiding over the sentencing hearing for Lawrence Nassar, the former doctor for U.S.A. Gymnastics. But she’s also running what amounts to a demonstration clinic on how to show compassion to crime victims at sentencing.

The New York Times has a front-page article today on the sentencing hearing, now in its second week. The article is filled with statements Judge Aquilina has made to victims:

  • “Thank you. What would you like me to know?”
  • “Leave your pain here, and go out and do your magnificent things.”
  • “You are so strong and brave.”
  • “The military has not yet come up with fiber as strong as you.”
  • “Mattel ought to make toys so that little girls can look at you and say, ‘I want to be her.'” Thank you so much for being here, and for your strength.”

I’ve taught Tom Tyler’s four elements of procedural fairness now for many years: (1) voice, (2) respect, (3) neutrality, and (4) trust/trustworthy authority. Ultimately, you want court participants to feel that they’ve had the opportunity to speak, were treated with respect, and listened to. You also want them to feel that the person wielding the authority is sincere and caring, genuinely out to do the right thing.

Judge Aquilina seems to have hit it out of the park in making sure that victim voices were heard, giving them every ounce of closure that a sentencing hearing can provide, and conveying the very real sense that she sincerely cares about each of them. None of that is easy to do.

I haven’t had a chance to watch the hearings—I have a full-time “day job” as an appellate judge. So I can’t say whether everything she has done was the right thing or the best practice. Legitimate questions can be raised from media accounts on the neutrality element. After all, she still must sentence Nassar, and she must be careful both to be—and to appear—fair in doing so. I am not suggesting she has failed on that point; I simply haven’t seen enough to know. As Professor Stephen Gillers notes in the New York Times article, though, this is a sentencing hearing, not a trial, and Nassar has already pleaded guilty to serious state and federal crimes. So it’s fair for the judge to take that into account at this hearing and even to comment on it.

Set the neutrality issue aside, though, because the significance of this hearing for other judges and those trying to make courts work better comes in the way Judge Aquilina has dealt with the victims. She has provided a model of procedural justice—providing voice, treating victims with respect, and showing that the judge presiding sincerely cares about each of them. And she has done it all in a public courtroom. Those who train judges should carefully look through transcripts or news accounts of this sentencing hearing. Examples of procedurally fair practices abound.

Posted January 24, 2018 by Steve Leben in Courts, Procedural Fairness, Trial Courts