Victoria federal judge promoted to Fifth Circuit appeals court

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

May 25, 2014 at 12:25 a.m.
Updated May 26, 2014 at 12:26 a.m.

A federal judge who has presided over cases involving fish, criminals and even verses of popular songs for the past two years in Victoria is headed to a higher court.

Judge Gregg Costa was confirmed last week via an unanimous U.S. Senate vote to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans.

Costa was nominated for his current position in September 2011 and confirmed in May 2012.

President Barack Obama nominated him for the Fifth Circuit in December.

While Costas' duty station has been in Galveston, and he hears a majority of his cases there, he is the full-time judge for Victoria federal court's civil docket.

He also splits the Victoria federal court's criminal docket with senior Judge John D. Rainey.

"The people have been great," Costa said Friday. "Victoria is obviously a bustling place. ... There are some high-quality lawyers here."

Costa credits some of his success to his days at Teach for America.

He used to teach the third and fourth grades in a small town in Mississippi, which he says has enabled him to break down complicated topics for jurors both as an attorney and then as judge.

He earned his law degree from the University of Texas in 1999, going on to eventually become a federal prosecutor in Houston for seven years.

He was the lead prosecutor on a case in which R. Allen Stanford was sentenced to 110 years in prison for perpetrating what Costa called the "second-largest Ponzi scheme in the U.S."

Stanford defrauded people of about $7 billion when he used money from investors who bought certificates of deposit from a Caribbean bank to fund failed businesses, among other things, according to the Associated Press.

Working on the six-weeklong trial was beneficial because firstly, there's not many cases that go to trial in federal court, and secondly, those that do are not typically handled by younger prosecutors, Costa said.

Costa is currently presiding over a case involving Gonzales-based HeartBrand Beef and Bear Ranch.

The two have a dispute about a 2010 contract Bear Ranch's owner, Bill Koch, signed.

In this trial, Costa is allowing jurors to ask questions of the witnesses after attorneys from both sides are finished. Jurors pass over sheets of paper to a clerk whether they have a question or not, and Costa looks them over with attorneys before asking. It's a fairly new procedure he's seen other judges use.

"I've always been open to new ideas," Costa said. "I think we should make a trial as efficient and understanding as possible for a juror."

He said he'll miss being in his current position.

"There's a lot more human interaction," Costa said. "You have people from all walks of life come into your courtroom whereas at the appellate court, it's more academic."

He is also presiding over a lawsuit involving Citizens Medical Center. He will continue to preside over this case.

Costa will have an office in Houston and will travel to hear oral arguments in New Orleans, which is typically in front of two other judges.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has 17 judges, but there are two vacancies.

"I know a handful. I'm excited to get to know them and learn from them," he said.



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