• Ti'Anna Davis

Judge Jessica G. Costello attributes progress to city's diversity, mentors

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

On March 29, 2019, Jessica G. Costello was appointed by Governor Ron DeSantis to serve on the Hillsborough County Court bench. Before this judicial position, Costello was an Assistant Statewide Prosecutor with the Florida Attorney General’s Office. She prosecuted cases involving organized crime throughout the state with a focus on human trafficking, gangs, fraud, and counter-terrorism. She has worked with community leaders and nonprofit organizations to inform the public about issues including crime and the Tampa community. Judge Jessica G. Costello talks about what it’s like on (and behind) the bench.

Tell me what’s the best thing about serving here in Tampa Bay.

I’ve been in public service for almost my entire career, first as a prosecutor and now as a judge. The reason I’ve been able to sustain a focus on public service really is just rooted in the love for this community. I love this community. Tampa’s story, its diversity, its beauty, and most importantly its people are the reasons my husband and I decided to make Tampa our home and where we wanted to raise our family. Tampa is a place where people are focused on making things better for the next generation. So, at its core, truly the ability to just be a part of making a community that I love as safer and a stronger place is the best part of serving in Tampa Bay.

Can you tell me about how the city has helped to shape your personal and professional development?

Tampa has played and continues to play a really pivotal role in my professional development. I would add to the list of things that makes Tampa so special and so unique is that it’s a place where young professionals’ voices can be heard and can be impactful. I think it really holds true for the business community, the legal community, our philanthropic community, and truly the community at large.

For me as a young lawyer early on in my career, I was able to be meaningfully involved in our legal community through entities like the Hillsborough County Bar Association and the George Edgecomb Bar Association. Ultimately, through meaningful involvement there, I was able to gain access to mentors whose guidance, perspective, and support were pivotal to my growth early on. I would say though that combination of leadership opportunities early in my career and sustained mentorship through those leadership opportunities, I was able to chart a career path that benefited from meaningful involvement at the pivotal early points in my career where you’re trying to decide where you’d like to go in 15 to 20 years.

What do you wish more people knew about your role and what you do professionally on a day-to-day basis?

I would say so there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes here in the courthouse to make the hearings and the trials and the day to day stuff that happens in the courthouse occur. So, from our clerks to judicial assistance, to law enforcement bailiffs, there are really a lot of people who work very hard to make things happen, especially in a courtroom, like my courtroom. As I've said many times since taking the bench, county court is the People's Court. The county court is the place where most citizens have an interaction with the court system, with the judicial system, if they have any interaction at all. I think it would surprise people to know that I spend just as much time educating people about the process and about how the court works and about why I'm making the decisions that I'm making, as I do actually ruling on cases. I've said from the very beginning, that educating people about the process is extremely important and it's pivotal to people understanding and having a strong belief in our justice system.

How are you managing to balance such an important professional duty with your role as a mom?

It’s really tough and what I’ve decided over the course of the past several years, moving from being a young professional to be a working mom, to be a mom judge is that I aim for a work-life focus. When I'm on the bench with lawyers and the parties to a case in front of me, they get 100% of me focused on that task at that time. I'm prepared for their hearing; I'm focused on getting to the root of their case and solving their issues. By the other side of the coin, when I'm with my family, they get 100% of me, whether that's reading dinosaur books to my son or attending preschool meetings and making holiday treats for his classmates, whether I'm in that professional space or I'm in that mom role, I'm really focused on what I'm doing at that time so that the people in front of me understand that I care.

It really takes a village to do that. I know that people use that saying all the time, but it really has not been more true than since becoming a mom for me. My village is my husband who is a true partner in the raising of our child. As somebody who is invested in my career as I am in his career, that mutual support really gets us through. That village is also our moms, friends, my lawyer mom friends who understand the demands of a working mom, my stay at home mom friends and, most importantly, that village is supported by families who, even though they aren't nearby, will drop anything to help us find our way through those curveballs that always come at the last minute.

Since moving into this role, I've really tried to find some time for myself, to decompress, to process my own thoughts and feelings, to center myself, even if it's just in a small way. I really think that it's important to recognize that you can't pour from an empty cup. So, to find small ways to prevent having that empty cup is just as important as being there for the parties that come into my courtroom, being there for my family. It's definitely been tough at times, but I can tell you that I have been blessed to have so many moments over the past 10 years and so many moments over the past year since taking the bench, which validates that choice to pursue public service. What I often think about that brings me the most joy, when I'm sometimes in the thick of that work-life focus, is the acknowledgment that my son is going to grow up in a world where his representation of the justice system is somebody who looks like his mom. And so, for me, that just makes it completely worthwhile.

What would you say is the best-kept secret about Tampa Bay?

I have been surprised and really intrigued by the diversity of interests and backgrounds of our judiciary. Before I became a judge, I probably wouldn't have realized that the judge I appeared in front of a week ago is a member of a choral society or is an avid rollerblader and now I recognize them every Friday on Bayshore Boulevard. Just the diversity of involvement of our judiciary in Tampa Bay. One of the things that have been really wonderful about moving into this role has been getting to know my colleagues and getting to learn the ways that they care about the city and the way that they show that they care about the city when they're out of the robe.

[Interview conducted with Danielle Bayard Jackson]

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