• U.S.

The Supreme Court: A Compliment from Mr. C.

2 minute read

In its long history, the U.S. Supreme Court has received countless accolades. But last week the Court got an unexpected and effusive endorsement from a man who is usually noted for his tight lip. Rasped gravel-voiced Frank Costello: “It’s a square bench.”

By a vote of 6 to 2, the Court had blocked the Government’s long campaignto send Gambler Costello, 73, back to his native Italy. It was six years ago that Costello was stripped of his citizenship on the grounds that he had obtained naturalization through fraud, that he had listed his occupation as real estate when it really was gambling and bootlegging. After that, the Justice Department moved to deport Costello on the theory that two previous convictions for income tax evasion made him vulnerable to a statute that permits the ouster of an alien found guilty of two crimes involving moral turpitude.

The Supreme Court disagreed. It held that the Government mistakenly applied the law retroactively to cover crimes committed while Costello was still a citizen. The “relation-back” concept, as Justice Potter Stewart called it in his majority opinion, was “a legal fiction, at best.” If it applied in Costello’s case, said Stewart, it could also apply to someone whose original naturalization “was not fraudulent, but simply legally invalid upon some technical ground.”

The Court’s determination to deal strictly with the law, not with personalities, surprised Costello, who had worried for years that his reputation as the ex-prime minister of the underworld would weaken his appeal. “If my name was John Jones I would be a 1-to-40 favorite,” he said. But the Court was not concerned with gamblers’ odds; characteristically, it simply treated Costello as if he were indeed John Jones.

Costello heard the news from his attorney, Edward Bennett Williams, whom he had anxiously telephoned from Manhattan every Monday morning for months on Supreme Court decision day. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Costello later. “I feel naked without a lawyer.”

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