Costello’s years on the bench were quiet ones

Leonard Costello believes he was a difficult man to deceive while serving as judge.  - Charlie Bermant/Staff Photo
Leonard Costello believes he was a difficult man to deceive while serving as judge.
— image credit: Charlie Bermant/Staff Photo

In court, Superior Court Judge Leonard Costello doesn’t take a lot of time to explain things.

He asks questions, makes rulings and doesn’t waste any words. But as he retired this week, the local bench’s longest-serving member has taken some time to reflect upon his years of service, sharing a bit more of himself with the public.

“Justice and fairness are ideals,” Costello said, at a recent public appearance. “We have a ways to go to meet these ideals. My experience has been the system devotes more to time to the cure than prevention. Prevention is better, and cheaper, in the long run.”

Costello, 61, has provided a measure of homegrown Kitsap County stability. Born and raised in Bremerton, he graduated from West Bremerton High School (where he met his future wife).

After college he returned to the area to practice law, then working as a land commissioner and a court commissioner before his election to the Superior Court in 1992.

Costello’s departure will change the dynamics of the court. He has served with every current judge for the duration of their terms, with some connections reaching farther back: He was Judge Russell Hartman’s law partner in the 1980s, and attended Stanford University at the same time as Judge Theodore Spearman.

His decisions have continued impact. He was the judge who ruled that attorneys involved with the sexual harassment case against Buck’s A&W deserved “reasonable compensation,” which led to the events that almost drove the restaurant out of business

He will not comment about that case, since it is still under appeal.

“It’s really not safe for me to be on Bainbridge Island anymore,” he said. “There was a dispute about whether the public had access to the waterfront from road ends. The people who don’t own land near the road ends are happy with that decision and the people who live near the road ends are very unhappy with that decision.”

Costello said he has never visited any of the other judge’s courtrooms and he has developed his own straightforward trial style on his own. He said he is by nature a serious person, and deliberately doesn’t waste words.

“I need to say what the basis of my decision is,” he said. “But I don’t need to write a long book about it. I tend to be briefer than some other judges, but I am comfortable with that.”

These years in the courtroom have developed his instincts. He has a pretty good sense of when someone is telling the truth.

This puts lawyers, witnesses and the jury on notice, compelling them to adopt a similar serious — and candid — demeanor.

And while there is no magic involved, it would be difficult to lie to Costello should he look you in the eyes and ask a specific question.

“I have what my wife calls ‘The Look,’” he said. “I listen to people, I watch people, and see how the jury reacts to what they say. From this, I get an idea whether they are believable or not. I have a sense whether they are telling the truth.”

As he has presided over jury selection for every one of his trials, he has heard every possible excuse for why someone cannot serve.

While this has tested his truth-meter, he feels most people will serve when they’re called.

“Sometimes sitting on a jury is an imposition,” he said. “This will always be true, given the constraints of what we can pay someone who is called for jury duty. It is an economic hardship, because many people don’t get paid if they don’t go to work.

“But we don’t want people on a jury who have their mind on other things, like their kids or their job or whether they are going to get evicted,” he said. “We want someone who can give their full attention and focus on the trial.”

Costello made the decision to retire earlier this year, announcing this intention in March (Superior Court judges usually run for re-election as a group. Aside from Costello’s open seat, the seven other judges all ran unopposed this year).

He said he chose to serve out his term rather than retire and allow the governor to appoint a replacement “because the timing was right. My wife just retired. This is how things worked out.”

After he retires, Costello will continue his long-time extracurricular activities. He is a bicyclist and a runner, but that has slowed down as he has aged.

He and his wife travel at every opportunity, and are both movie enthusiasts, attending film festivals throughout the country.

And for now, there is the expected reflection, about his life and his job.

“I really thought this job would be easier,” he said. “When I was a lawyer, I thought that being a judge would be a piece of cake. I thought that I had made my arguments, and how could the judge not follow them? But as a judge, hearing two different solid arguments I found that it was not so easy to make a ruling.

“But the world is not black and white,” he said. “The world is shades of grey. And evil people are the exception. There are some people who are bad, but the people I have had the most to do with are flawed, and gave trouble-making appropriate choices.”

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