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Legal Learning: Like father, like son

From James H. Manahan, J.D.

Silver Bay, Minn. 

The only father/son law firm on the North Shore, and one of the few such in Minnesota, is Costley Law Firm of Two Harbors.

The dad, Mitch Costley, is a descendant of pioneers who came here before Minnesota was a state. He grew up in Two Harbors and has practiced law here since 1967. He became city attorney for Two Harbors a year later, and in 1971 he was elected Lake County Attorney. He resigned after being re-elected, in order to devote himself to running his law firm – and raising four kids. Later, he was a part-time public defender for about 20 years, representing criminal defendants who could not afford a lawyer. He has also served on the Lake County Historical Society Board for the last eight years, and was chair of the Lake County Housing & Redevelopment Authority for almost 30 years. However, his proudest achievement, he told me, was being the second person in Lake County history to become an Eagle Scout.

Tim Costley has practiced law with his Dad since 2000. He has also been active in community affairs, serving on the Board of Supervisors of Alden Township for several years, as the chair of Ducks Unlimited and as a board member of the Two Harbors Area Chamber of Commerce. Like his father, he has represented people who couldn’t afford a lawyer, as a member of the Northeast Minnesota Volunteer Attorney program.

Mitch actually discouraged his son from going to law school. “Being a lawyer,” he said, “is too much work.” But now he admits that he loves practicing law with his son. “It’s the most enjoyable experience I could have had,” he said. The two of them do many things together besides handling lawsuits (such as fishing). The secret to working together successfully, he says, is having a good relationship, which Mitch and Tim have had since Tim’s childhood.

In 2010, Tim ran for district court judge, and now says that he doesn’t regret it. However, trying to get elected in the 6th Judicial District (Carlton, Cook, Lake, and St. Louis Counties) when you aren’t well known in the larger counties, was not a lot of fun, he said. Both he and Mitch support the Impartial Justice Act, which would allow judges to be appointed based on merit, subject to recall for failure to perform their duties. This bipartisan proposal of former Governor Al Quie was supposed to be on the ballot this fall as a constitutional amendment, but failed to clear legislative hurdles last month.

Mitch and Tim Costley have also spoken out in opposition to the attempt to make the Lake County auditor/treasurer and recorder appointed positions. In fact, they drafted a petition opposing the change and got enough signatures to put that question on the ballot this fall. Although only 721 signatures were required (10% of registered voters), almost 1,400 voters signed the petition. The proposed change (to appoint instead of elect) would “take away a hard-won American right to vote,” Mitch said. “We’re a high voter turnout county and people take their right to vote seriously. I don’t care how you vote. I just want you to be able to vote on it.”

And his son, Tim, added “I think there are a lot of people that are mad about a lot of things that have been going on in the county. I think this is the one way now they can finally show that they’re not happy.” On November 4, Lake County voters will have a chance to vote on whether they agree with the Lake County Commissioners or with Mitch and Tim Costley on this issue.


James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills, and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and are not to be attributed to his employer.