The New York Times Headline sets it up perfectly:
Victims in Larry Nassar Abuse Case Find a Fierce Advocate: The Judge
Now, the spouse of a sexual assault advocate within me cheers this on, but the former public defender within me squirms in my chair. Moreover, as an advocate for neutral judicial engagement, and as one who believes that such neutrality has broader limits when a decision has been rendered and compliance has become the issue, my antenna are up.
On the one hand, we want judges to speak forcefully as the voice of the community. On the other hand, without neutrality, that voice is nothing more than the baying of the crowd.
In this case lots of factors have to be taken into account. This is a sentencing hearing, which at its best is a conversation between the parties enhanced by judicial candor. The case was resolved by plea. Moreover, the ultimate minimum sentence was what had already been accepted by the defendant in the plea agreement. Thus, there is no argument that the defendant in this case was harmed (unless you read the judges comment on a death warrant as incitement to other inmates, which given prison dynamics, it may well function as.)
But, but, but. There is something unseemly about the overall picture, if only because of “slippery slope” concerns.
So, maybe it is helpful to lay out what is necessary before “judicial advocacy” is appropriate.
No impact on neutrality of fact finding or decision-making. In this case, there was no real decision-making. But given judicial discretion in pleas, that may be less usual than we think.
No impact on perception of neutrality of the process as a whole. Thus, if the judge was the fact finder, or if they entered controversial rulings in the court of the case, and then let rip at sentencing, there might be a perception of lack of neutrality that is ultimately in no one’s interest.
No Impact on perception of neutrality of the general role of the judicial. This is the hardest and most speculative, given that it may depend on nuanced understanding of the phases of a case.