In her own mold

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

If you ever think you have too much on your plate, consider a day in the life of Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina.

In fact, consider all the monikers by which Aquilina is known: Judge. Professor. Major. Mom. Grandma. Not to mention one endearment from her military days: Barracuda Aquilina.

This outspoken, self-sufficient multi-tasker embraces every role.

Not only does she love children, and teaching young people who are eager to learn, but she believes she was born to go into law.

"I'm a fighter," she said, sitting at her paper-piled desk in the Veterans Memorial Courthouse in Lansing. "I don't take no for an answer. I don't let anyone create a mold for me. I'm going to make my own mold. I stand up for people and say, `We're going to do what's right.'"

Aquilina doesn't mind a bit of controversy-and in fact, expects it from time to time as she is assigned controversial cases.

Last July, Aquilina ruled that Detroit's historic bankruptcy filing violated the Michigan Constitution and state law, and sent a copy of her judgment to President Obama, noting that he may want to look into the pension issue.

Aquilina took some heat for her decision, with some accusing her of hoping to gain some political clout with Obama-an accusation Aquilina says has absolutely no truth.

"This was not a decision that was hard for me," she said. "This was the law, and our state Constitution has to stand for something, as do our laws. And ultimately people can make fun of my decision or not. It's up to them. I follow the law, and I think eventually I'll be upheld."

She's not sure how it will all play out.

"But my message to Obama was: ??Get ready to cough up some federal money. This is coming.'"

She said she is repeatedly asked why she gets more than her fair share of high-profile cases, and explains that judges are assigned an equal amount of cases.

"The computer does it," she said. "God's giving them to me-if anybody is. I think certain things are put in your hands."

Last December, after sentencing a serial rapist to life in prison, he lashed out at her, using profanity and warning her that he would send someone to get her.

In 2006, she presided over the high profile Ricky Holland case, in which the seven-year-old's adoptive parents were charged with his murder.

"Oftentimes I don't know what I'm going to do or say because I still leave it open for the attorneys to change my mind," she said. "And then something always happens that says, ??This is the right answer.'

"I leave it up to the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, who I always say are smarter than me, and I'm fine with them overturning me as long as I feel I've done my best job. Because no judge hits the mark 100 percent."

Maltese, German roots

Aquilina's Maltese father, a urologist, and her German mother met on a train and married a year later. When their two children were toddlers, they immigrated to Detroit and eventually to Saginaw.

In high school, Aquilina considered two career paths: The military and law school. She majored in English education and journalism at Michigan State University, got married the summer after she graduated, and then enrolled at Cooley Law School in Lansing.

Law school is tough enough as a single person; Aquilina was not only married, but she gave birth-twice-while at Cooley.

After graduation, Aquilina realized she knew how laws are implemented, but had no idea how they're made. So she became an administrative assistant and campaign manager for State Senator John F. Kelly, and spent the next 10 years running campaigns as well as the district office and senate office, working with lobbyists, and testifying in front of committees. She and Kelley also practiced law together part-time.

During that time, she finally realized her dream to join the military and became the first female JAG officer in the history of the Michigan Army National Guard.

And she started teaching at Cooley Law School after she went back to the school and told them they should be teaching legislative process, and she was the one to teach it. Ever since, she's been teaching legislative process along with other classes every semester at Cooley. And, when she discovered how much she loves teaching and is good at it, she became an adjunct professor at Michigan State University College of Law, too.

"Students know I have very high expectations, but I can tell you, they learn," she said.

Asked how she keeps all those students and classes organized, she pointed to an area near her desk.

"See all those briefcases?" she asked. "Each one is a different class."

For several years, Aquilina was in practice with her sister, Helen Hartford, who is now an attorney referee with Friend of the Court and also works in the courthouse, but one floor down.

But there were so many times in private practice when she wanted to tell people what to do-rather than allow them to make their own decision-that Aquilina finally decided to run for judge.

That was 10 years ago. She was a district court judge for four years and is now in her sixth year in the circuit court. She's up for election-unopposed-in November.

But it's not the glamorous role that TV portrays, she said.

"Even in law school, professors give students the wrong idea about what judges are," she said. "I tell students it's really a lawyer wearing a robe, so don't be afraid to make your record, and make your voice heard before the bench."

In fact, friends know that under that robe she's probably dressed casually and in one of her many beloved pairs of cowboy boots.

"I find them to be the most comfortable boots ever, and if I could live in jeans and cowboy boots, I would," she said.

A mother again-at 52

When her two older kids went to college years ago, Aquilina was faced with the empty nest-and hated the idea.

So, at the age of 42, she and her longtime boyfriend (since separated) welcomed daughter Johanna.

Ten years later, when Aquilina decided she wanted more children, she went to a Michigan sperm bank her doctor recommended, and chose a father who was the same nationality and makeup as her family.

Nine months later, she welcomed twins Michael and Marissa, who are now four.

"As much as I'd love to have a man in my life, I haven't found the right man," she said. "And again, I don't wait for things to happen. I make them happen. I live my life on my own terms. It's a full life, and I try to add to other people's lives without being a burdon. My kids and I have a great time."

"She was born to be a mom," said Aquilina's law clerk, Morgan Cole, noting how often she's been able to help her with her own parenting skills.

Cole says her boss is "definitely the most genuine and loyal person I've ever met."

"She's like a second mother to me," she said. "Any time I need help, she would stop everything to do so."

Aquilina acknowledges that she no longer has the freedom to indulge in travel-a once favorite pastime.

"But I'm a happy homebody with my kids," said Aquilina, a youthful 56 who credits an older pregnancy and its corresponding hormones to acting as a kind of youth serum. "I don't see it much differently from being married because women take on so much of the role of taking care of the children, the house, the doctor appointments, the illnesses, and all that. When I was married, I had a good husband, but he wasn't involved in doing those things with me. So I really don't notice any difference. I'm busy. But I'm happy. I can't imagine a life without kids around me."

That's another reason she loves to teach, and plans to continue indefinitely.

"I love the energy kids bring to your life-at any age."

Aquilina and her parents built a three-level house in Meridian Township together with the intent of keeping them out of a nursing home.

She does most of the cooking. Her mother does most of the laundry, and helps with childcare. They share in the shopping.

Her father, a world traveler who speaks seven languages, bought a winery in Argentina and began making Aquilina wine.

Not that his daughter is familiar with it.

"From what I see here, I don't want to drink alcohol," she said. "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."

In any spare time, she can be found writing another novel on her laptop.

In addition to Johanna and the twins, her son, David, is 32, living in Lansing and is in the military; her daughter, Jennifer, 31, is a public relations consultant who lives in Lansing with her attorney husband and their two children.

About nine years ago, Johanna started hiding her mother's Army boots. Apparently she didn't want her mother-in the National Guard at the time-to be deployed.

"She didn't want me to go, even on weekends," Aquilina said. "That was really telling to me that I had spent so much time with the military, that I really needed to be home."

So, after 20 years, she retired from the military. With no regrets.

On the other hand, she hopes to stay on the bench until she's forced by age to retire at 74.

Teaching makes her a better judge, she believes. As does her background in the Legislature.

Understanding the legislative process certainly came in handy the time she wanted a statute amended to make it tougher on child abusers.

She walked over to the Capital and made it happen. A bill extending the probation on misdemeanor 4th degree child abuse from two to five years sailed through the House and the Senate out of committee, then went to both floors, passed, and became law.

"I didn't wait for a lobbyist," she said. "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."

Published: Mon, Jul 21, 2014

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