COURT IS ADJOURNED
Thomas G. Gavin ends tenure as longest-serving judge in county history
WEST CHESTER » In a courtroom at the Chester County Justice Center decorated with a “Happy Retirement” banner and colorful paper plates full of cookies and cake that had been laid out in his honor, Thomas G. Gavin, the longest serving jurist in the county’s history, smiled as he reminisced with other court personalities about the decades that he’d seen go by from his seat on the bench.
“It’s been a good 33 years,” stated Gavin, who spent his last formal day as a judge in the county on Friday, June 8, feted by his black-robed colleagues in a surprise goodbye ceremony in Courtroom Two on the courthouse’s seventh floor.
“No,” corrected Nicholas Casenta, the county District Attorney’s chief deputy for appeals, who was standing next to the judge in the small courtroom that had been transformed into a makeshift party hall. “Thirtytwo years, five months, and five days. I know, because we started on the same day. And I count.”
It was that sort of a week for Gavin. Time to smile with people he’d come to know and admire over the years; time to remember those who’d helped him out on his road through a legal career that spans four decades; time to drop the guard that comes from the lofty perch of a judge’s bench; and time to listen to the legal expert Casenta make one more definitive declaration.
Gavin, 73, of West Goshen, decided to officially retire from service in the county in part after growing frustrated with changes that the state has made in the way it treats senior judges — those jurists who step down from full-time work on the bench but who fill in on a regular basis both in the county’s where they were elected and in other jurisdictions across the state.
He will, however, continue to work as a senior judge in other counties on specific cases. He is scheduled, for example, to preside next year over the insurance fraud trials involving members of a politically connected Bucks County family stemming from an arson investigation. He plans to travel with his wife, Denise Gavin, and spend time with his large family.
Up until the close of business Friday, Gavin had continued to oversee a list of current county criminal cases, accepting pleas and managing their flow. On Wednesday, he oversaw the high-profile sentencing of a state trooper who had punched a drunk driving suspect while the man was handcuffed, ordering the man sent to county prison.
On Friday morning, in the courtroom where he has served off and on since the Justice Center opened in 2008, Gavin was expected only to go through the list of criminal matters before him until quitting time at noon. But his colleagues on the bench had other ideas, gathering in advance of his appearance in the courtroom to surprise him and pay tribute, “before you turn into a pumpkin,” joked President Judge Jacqueline Carroll Cody.
Cody told Gavin that it would have been impossible to let him go without finally telling him how thankful the judges were, “for all you’ve done for the citizens of Chester County, and for us.
“You have really set a standard of what it means to be a good jurist,” Cody said, calling him hard-working, fair, and a mentor to the younger colleagues on the bench.
One of those, Judge Patrick Carmody, had earlier delivered a letter to Gavin’s chambers in which he tried to describe what made the elder statesman so important in the county’s legal community.
“The word Honorable was never more appropriately pinned on anyone. Your advice over the years has been invaluable to me and countless others,” Carmody appeared before Gavin as one of the county’s top prosecutors for years and got to know his moods, character, and quirks. “As a judge, no litigant ever knew exactly how you would rule, which is how it should be. But we knew that you would agonize over doing what is right, regardless of any criticism.
“Over the years, I would hear some attorneys complain about you, but I noticed it was never the people assigned to your courtroom,” Carmody wrote. “Those people appreciated how you treated them. You wanted a fair trial where each attorney worked hard both on behalf of their side and also to improve themselves. An attorney once complained that you yelled at them, and I said, “That shows he thinks you have potential. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t say anything.”
Gavin had formally resigned from his full-time position on the Common Pleas bench in 2010, but continued on with his senior duties until now.
A native of Scranton and graduate of Villanova University and the Villanova School of Law, Gavin was elected to the court in 1985 and won retention to the bench for successive 10-year-terms in 1995 and 2005. He served as the county’s president judge from 1995 to 2000 and was a member of the state’s Association of Trial Judges.
Gavin worked in private practice before his election to the bench and served as a township supervisor in West Goshen and as an assistant district attorney in the 1970s.
A former U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam, Gavin was known as a sometimes candid, no-nonsense judge who would frequently speak his mind from the bench, talking to the criminal defendants who appeared before him on a down-to-earth level and in terms they could readily understand.
In remarks to a reporter on Thursday after the well-wishers at the informal reception held for him had gone back to work, Gavin waxed nostalgic on the years that had come and gone, and opined on one of his favorite subjects — the decline of respect in the country.
“I grew up in the golden age of the (Chester County) court in the 1970s and 1980s,” he said. “And I got to watch the greatest lawyers practice.” He remembered court clerks who would write their trial notes in beautiful script, and judges who advised him to always wear a suit and tie, never a sports jacket, in court. “You have to have the respect of people who come before you. And there is not a lot of respect for anything anymore, and that is taking a toll on society. Nobody talks anymore; we talk at each other, not to each other.”
But the curmudgeonly side of Gavin had disappeared by the time he strode into the bench on Friday to find 13 other judges waiting for him in the courtroom where there hangs portraits of
all of them, and those who had served on the bench back into the 18th century.
“I have been lucky to serve with wonderful people all my life,” he said, wishing them the best. “As one of my colleagues said, ‘It’s a small town. I’ll be back.’”
Chester County Common Pleas Court President Judge Jacqueline Carroll Cody, second from left, bids farewell to Senior Judge Thomas Gavin on his last formal day of work on the bench as her colleagues listen on Friday, June 8.
Chester County Common Pleas Court Senior Judge Thomas G. Gavin said goodbye to court personnel during an informal party at the Chester County Justice Center.