Judge Edward J. Costello

By Connie Cain Ramsey

 Edward J. Costello in his chambers at the Chittenden County Municipal Courthouse on South Winooski Avenue.

Edward J. Costello in his chambers at the Chittenden County Municipal Courthouse on
South Winooski Avenue.

 

Judge Edward J. Costello

For The History Space

 

On any given day, people from varied walks of life, including lawyers and
judges, accusers and the accused, pass through the doors of the Judge Edward J.
Costello Courthouse complex at 32 - 36 Cherry Street in Burlington. Just who was
this man whose lifetime of work on the bench merited the high honor of having a
Chittenden County courthouse named after him?


Judge Edward Costello was sworn in as Municipal Court Judge in February of
1955 – a simpler time in Chittenden County jurisprudence, where violators from
hitchhikers and traffic offenders, to petty thieves and prostitutes, would answer to a
single Municipal Court Judge in a makeshift courthouse on South Winooski Avenue.
For those whose cases weren’t resolved on the spot, it was a short trip by Sheriff’s
escort across the street to the County Jail, where they would remain to face justice at
a future date.


The jail at that time had an almost homelike atmosphere, with inmates
enjoying a warm bed, a hot meal (provided by the Sheriff’s wife), and a common
area for recreation. Alcohol and other contraband were often passed through the
bars from friends and family outside the jail, while the Sheriff politely looked the
other way.


The swearing in of Judge Costello, along with Sheriff Earle “Buzz” McLaughlin
and State’s Attorney Allan Bruce, came at a time when crime was growing in
proportion and intensity to the growth of the area population. Judge Costello was
the right man at the right time to deal with an expanding criminal culture in
Chittenden County.


Edward Joseph Costello was born In Rutland, Vermont, on February 7, 1921.
His father died when he was just seven years old, leaving his mother with a family of
nine children to feed. A member of what is commonly referred today as “The
Greatest Generation,” he served in the United State’s Navy during World War II, and
was honorably discharged in February of 1946. In September of 1947, he married
Dorothy Rita Wimett, and worked briefly as a salesman before enrolling in the
University of Vermont and later Boston University, where he received his law
degree in 1952 with the help of the G.I. Bill. Eight children were born to Edward and
Dorothy Costello between1948 and 1963 – Jay (Edward Jr.), Sara, Sean, Paul, Dan,
Mary, Tom and Steve.


Judge Costello was a staunch supporter of the Republican Party, aiding in
several campaigns beginning in 1948 and eventually becoming the Republican State
Campaign Director in 1954. His loyalty and dedication to the party was rewarded at
age 33, when he received his first Judicial Appointment by then Republican
Governor Joseph B. Johnson.

At that time, all Municipal Court Judges required gubernatorial appointments
and reappointments that usually ran along party lines. In 1962, Vermonters elected
Philip Hoff as the first Democratic Governor of Vermont in 100 years. Despite Judge
Costello’s staunch Republicanism, and protests from his own party, Governor Hoff
appointed him a Vermont District Judge in 1966 – a testament to the reputation
Judge Costello had built in over a decade as a Municipal Judge. From 1967 to 1980,
Judge Costello served as Chief Trial Judge, and thereafter, until his retirement in
1984, he served as Administrative Judge for the Trial Courts. In a resolution by the
Senate and House of Representatives naming the new Chittenden County
Courthouse in his honor it is stated: “…during all of those years, Judge Costello was
known as a fair, efficient and impartial judge…”


Out on the streets, as well as throughout Chittenden County communities,
Judge Costello’s reputation as a tough judge and strict disciplinarian grew. But his
greatness came from toughness tempered with compassion. He once told his son
Paul, “never let the interests of bureaucracy prevent you from seeing the human
story of the individual in front of you.” Despite his stern courtroom demeanor, he
also gained a reputation for his dry sense of humor. For example:


• He was known for his line, “If I see you in here again you better bring
your toothbrush.”
• He was known for chastising someone arrested for excessive
speeding with: “Anyone who drives that fast should be walking, and
soon you will be.” This was often followed by the advice to “buy
yourself a good pair of shoes.”
• Once a woman was fined $15.00 for a speeding violation that also
included $1.70 in court costs the violator had not expected. She only
had one more dollar to pay. The judge asked if anyone in the
courtroom had 70 cents. When noone spoke up, he banged his gavel
and lowered the fine to $16.00, thus moving things along.
• A seventeen-year-old boy caught driving with beer in his car, denied
drinking the beer. To wit, Judge Costello asked: “So you were just
taking the beer out for a ride?”
• A young snowmobiler caught driving his rig on the interstate was
informed by the judge: “You have just made history as the first person
in Vermont to be charged with this offense.”

Having been born into a large family, as well as fathering a large family of his
own, he was deeply concerned with juvenile crime and the effect it had on both the
child and the parents. In the Vermont State Resolution to name the new courthouse
complex after him, it is stated: “Judge Costello was extremely effective in dealing
with the problems facing our youth and their parents.”


He used an innovative style in dealing with youthful offenders, sometimes
sentencing them to bring in a book report, or come back with an improved report
card, or learning a musical instrument. He was the first judge to order community
service as a sentence, and preferred probation over prison, to keep families
together, and he sometimes reduced felonies to misdemeanors, knowing a felony
could harm the convicted youth’s future. In Judge Costello’s courtroom, the
juveniles, and not the parents, paid the fines. When a group of St. Michael students
with fake I.D.’s were caught drinking in a bar, Judge Costello reminded them that the
bar’s liquor license was now at stake, and the owner had a family to feed.


There were low points in his efforts to help young people. He was once
assaulted in his courtroom by a young man who threw a speaker at the him,
lacerating his face. The man later killed himself in prison. The offender had been
raised in Week’s School, a reform school in Vergennes for juvenile delinquents that
also housed children abandoned or unwanted by their parents. At the time, Judge
Costello lamented to his daughter, Mary: “If he had had a decent childhood, he
would have grown up to be a successful man.”


Another of Judge Costello’s lasting achievements was his mentoring of young
lawyers. He often counseled them to change their client’s pleas from guilty to no
contest. “It will look better on your client’s record,” he would advise. Sometimes,
during a hearing, the Judge would suddenly blurt out, “objection sustained,” when
there had been no objection made. It was a not-so-subtle reminder to counsel that
inadmissible evidence was coming into the record, and counsel should start paying
attention.

Often he would take a defense counsel aside and tell them they had done a
particularly good job in a cross examining a witness, or giving a good closing
statement. He knew the importance of a pat on the back from a presiding judge.
Judge Edward J. Costello, the native son of Vermont who presided over cases
in Chittenden County for over 28 years, passed away on May 26, 1993. He lived long
enough to receive the Declaration of a Joint Resolution from the Vermont House and
Senate naming the new Chittenden County District and Family Court Complex in his
honor. Although he never set foot in the building the bears his name, his legacy
remains as a standard for those who follow in his footsteps.

 

Bob Boyd and Jack Ramsey contributed to this chronicle.