Chesco bench celebrates jurist’s milestone

A conspiracy against a Chester County jurist unfolded quietly over the course of a couple of months, culminating last week in a celebration.

Chester County Senior Judge Thomas G. Gavin shows an audience the painting that Edward Shenton used as a model for the mural commissioned for the Chester County courthouse.

Chester County Senior Judge Thomas G. Gavin displays the painting that artist Edward Shenton used as a model for his Chester County courthouse mural.

On Monday, Jan. 11, members of the Chester County bench gathered for their monthly judges’ meeting. Most had no inkling that that they would be learning about a judicial achievement, not routine court procedures.

Late last year, Chester County Judge John L. Hall, one of several avowed history buffs on the bench, was finishing up a 2014 assignment to compile a county list of judicial tenures when he discovered that Chester County Court Senior Judge Thomas G. Gavin was about to become the longest-serving judge in the county’s 225-year court history.

Hall shared the news with President Judge Jacqueline C. Cody that on Jan. 11, Gavin’s length of service – 30 years and five days – would eclipse Judge W. Butler Windle’s 1957 record of 30 years and four days. Cody agreed not only that the occasion should be recognized, but also that it should be a surprise. The best way to avoid possible leaks? Keep the plan to themselves.

“They completed shocked me,” Gavin said of the distinction. “I had no idea. I really thought a couple of the judges had served longer than I had.”

During his tenure, Gavin, who describes himself as an “old school” jurist, said that he benefited from the wisdom of trusted mentors like former Chester County Court President Judge D.T. Marrone and that he aspired to serve a similar role.

“I hope I’ve made a positive difference in some people’s lives,” he said. “There’s one thing I know for certain: Thirty years has really flown by.”

Gavin’s chosen career began in 1971 after completing a law degree at Villanova University – a pursuit that followed a three-year stint as a U.S. Marine Corps captain that included service in Vietnam.

Gavin entered private practice in Chester County in 1972, specializing in civil and criminal litigation. By the time he was elected judge in 1985, he had served as an assistant district attorney, a court-appointed criminal defense attorney, and a master in juvenile court. He served as the county’s president judge from 1995 until January 2000. He and his wife have five grown children and six grandchildren.

Over the years, Gavin has garnered publicity for a host of high-profile cases, ranging from the 2013 murder trial of Morgan Mengel, a West Goshen mother convicted of conspiring with her lover to kill her husband, to the 2010 conviction of Makeda J. Marley, the daughter of reggae icon Bob Marley, for growing marijuana plants in her Caln Township residence.

Judge Thomas G. Gavin says he can't believe how quickly his 30-plus years as a judge have flown.

Judge Thomas G. Gavin says he can't believe how quickly his 30-plus years as a judge have flown.

More recently, Gavin, who became a part-time senior judge in 2011, was tapped to head Chester County’s Veterans Court, a prison-alternative program. Like other diversionary initiatives, it offers participants intense, individualized treatment designed to help them avoid incarceration. He was also selected to hear an ongoing, $20 million insurance fraud case in Bucks County against the Risoldi family, a 2015 assignment that stemmed from the family’s alleged ties to Bucks County’s Republican Party.

In addition to his caseload, Gavin has also attracted attention for hammering nails as well as justice. In 2002, he traded his black robe for carpentry gear and reconfigured his chambers to make the space more efficient. While he was in construction mode, he also built a desk and credenza.

In 2004, he added playwriting to his resume, crafting a drama about an emancipated slave facing double-homicide charges in Kennett Township. Based on an actual 1820 trial, the play was performed at the biennial Meet the Judges Program in Chester County, an open house of sorts for the judiciary.

Gavin presided over the 2012 unveiling of a 5- by 16-foot Edward Shenton mural, which originally hung in the historic courthouse and was relocated to the Justice Center after a meticulous restoration. Gavin said the work, which serves as a visual compendium of county history, was commissioned when the courthouse’s North Wing was constructed in the mid-1950s.

For decades, Gavin led a quest to gain more insight into the painting, which hangs in his courtroom. In 2013, he even invited the artist’s son to visit; however, Ned Shenton couldn’t solve the mysteries about what his father, an acclaimed artist trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, had included and why. Undeterred, Gavin vowed to continue his research.

Gavin said he’s had his share of regrets. He once relented and allowed an abuser to get out of prison after the female victim begged for the man’s release. He learned of her death at his hands a couple of days later.

He said he’s still bothered by the fact that he was unable to get restitution for a Berwyn landscaper whose attorney, Ralph Mirarchi, scammed him out of his life’s savings in 2006. Gavin said the fact that Mirarchi hid the money by putting assets in his wife’s name was particularly galling.

Gavin said he prefers to dwell on the positives: the drug addicts who turned their lives around and returned to say thank-you, or the drunk drivers who ended up using their tragic outcomes to deter others.

With 40 percent of Chester County’s cases stemming from driving under the influence, Gavin said driverless vehicles are starting to look attractive. “That may be technology I can embrace if it ends up saving lives,” he said.

He recalled fondly that his judicial mentors decades ago required lawyers to show up early in crisp white shirts and suits ready to argue their case. Nowadays, the attire and the preparation have become more lax. “We have to get back to law as a profession,” Gavin suggested.

He would like to see the emphasis shift from billable hours to community service. “You’ve got to give something back,” he said. “Sometimes it’s more important to give without getting anything in return.”

Gavin noted with a smile that the only part of Monday’s ceremony more stunning than his longevity was the fact that Hall, known for his frugality, bought him lunch. Then he quickly retracted his remark.

“I don’t want to embarrass John,” Gavin said, agreeing to share the information only with Hall’s permission.

Hall laughed when told about Gavin’s comment. He then proceeded to recount the innumerable ways in which Gavin had exerted a positive influence on him, dating back to Hall’s assignment as a fledgling assistant district attorney in Gavin’s courtroom. Hall said Gavin epitomized the tradition of “honesty, civility and industry” on the Chester County bench.

“I owe him much more than lunch,” Hall concluded.

 

 

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