Kathleen T. Hessinger
Kathleen T. Hessinger, known as Kathy to friends and colleagues, was born in 1962 in Clearwater, Florida. She has spent her entire life in the Tampa Bay area. Hessinger earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of South Florida in 1984. She then attended the Stetson University College of Law, receiving her Juris Doctor degree in 1987.
Legal Career Before Becoming a Judge
Work in Private Practice
After law school, Hessinger worked as an associate attorney at a private firm in St. Petersburg handling civil litigation. She focused mainly on business disputes, real estate law, and probate matters. Hessinger gained valuable experience researching complex legal issues and advocating for clients in settlement negotiations and courtroom trials. She worked on high-profile cases that received local media attention.
Assistant State Attorney
In 1998, Hessinger left private practice to become an Assistant State Attorney in the Pinellas County State Attorney’s Office. As a prosecutor, she handled misdemeanor and felony criminal cases, including DUIs, drug crimes, domestic violence, and theft. Hessinger enjoyed being an advocate for victims and helping to keep the community safe by prosecuting those who broke the law. She tried over 50 jury trials and worked extensively with law enforcement officers and investigators to build strong cases.
Elections and Time on the Bench
After 16 years as a prosecutor, Hessinger decided to run for an open seat on the Pinellas County Court in 2014. She campaigned on her extensive legal experience and knowledge of the local court system. Hessinger won the election with 53% of the vote, defeating private attorney Valerie Evans.
Hessinger was up for reelection in 2022. She ran unopposed in the primary and defeated challenger Kenneth Afienko in the general election with 72% of the vote. Voters recognized Hessinger’s solid record as a fair, ethical, and experienced judge. Her decisive victory earned her another 6-year term.
Responsibilities as a County Court Judge
As a Pinellas County Court judge, Hessinger presides over misdemeanor criminal cases, traffic offenses, small claims civil suits, landlord-tenant disputes, and other legal matters. Her courtroom is high volume, handling over 25 cases per day. Hessinger conducts bond hearings, plea deals, motions hearings, bench trials, and sentencings. She is known for running an efficient courtroom while still taking the time to listen to all parties and make informed legal rulings. Hessinger treats all defendants, plaintiffs, attorneys, and her staff with respect.
Hessinger frequently presides over DUI cases, considering Florida’s strict laws and enforcement of drunk driving. She sees cases ranging from first time offenders to habitual drunk drivers. Hessinger takes these cases seriously, considering the significant public safety threat. She hands down sentences that balance punishment, rehabilitation, and preventing repeat offenses.
With housing costs rising, Hessinger’s court has seen an uptick in disputes between landlords and tenants over issues like evictions and security deposits. She listens carefully to understand the facts and applies the relevant state laws and the lease terms. Hessinger aims to reach compromises when possible, but does not hesitate to issue judgments against clear violators of lease agreements.
Small Claims Cases
Hessinger encourages citizens to represent themselves in small claims cases for amounts under $5,000. She explains relevant laws and court procedures to plaintiffs and defendants without attorneys. In these lower stakes cases, Hessinger works hard to efficiently resolve issues over money owed, damages, and consumer complaints. She believes handling these cases allows the court system to better serve the average citizen.
Judicial Philosophy and Approach
Beliefs on Role of a Judge
Hessinger believes a judge should be an impartial decision maker who follows the law, not legislates from the bench based on personal views. She sees her role as applying the law to the facts of a case and treating all parties equally regardless of race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Hessinger’s goal is justice based on law, not public opinion or her own preferences.
Reputation in the Legal Community
Attorneys who have tried cases before Hessinger describe her as fair, prepared, engaged, and respectful. Lawyers appreciate that she gives them latitude to present arguments while still maintaining control in her courtroom. Prosecutors say Hessinger has the right temperament – never losing her patience or reacting emotionally. Defense attorneys say she carefully weighs evidence and does not rush to judgment against defendants. Her reputation is of a judge who may run a tight ship, but is still open-minded and reasonable.
Family and Interests
Hessinger has been married to her husband, Tom, for over 25 years. They have two grown children together. In her free time, Hessinger enjoys boating, fishing, playing tennis, and reading mysteries. She has a black lab mix adopted from the local animal shelter. Hessinger likes to unwind after a long week on the bench by cooking dinner with a glass of wine.
Hessinger serves on the board of a local food bank and volunteers with Habitat for Humanity. She often speaks at schools and community events on topics like the legal system, cyberbullying, and drunk driving. Hessinger also organizes an annual 5k race that raises money for court appointed special advocate (CASA) programs. She aims to make a positive impact both on the bench and beyond it.
Potential for Higher Office
As a respected, experienced county court judge, Hessinger has been encouraged to run for higher judicial office. Attorneys have suggested she consider a Florida Circuit Court seat or even a District Court of Appeal position. However, Hessinger has not shown much interest yet in leaving her current judgeship. She knows just how demanding and all-consuming a judicial campaign can be.
At 61 years old, Hessinger likely has a few more terms on the county court before considering retirement. She was just reelected to a term lasting until 2029. Hessinger truly enjoys the work and is not ready to fully retire. Down the road, she may explore serving as a senior judge after retiring from full-time duties. This would allow her to occasionally fill vacancies, help manage overflowing dockets, and handle special cases.
Kathleen Hessinger’s career demonstrates hard work, integrity, and a commitment to public service. As a judge, she has shown dedication, commitment to fairness, and concern for her community. Hessinger brings both knowledge and compassion to the bench. Her legal experience and personal temperament have made Hessinger well-respected and influential in Pinellas County’s justice system. Barring any plans to seek higher judicial office, she will likely continue impartially serving on the Pinellas County Court for years to come.
Where did Kathleen Hessinger go to law school?
She earned her Juris Doctor from Stetson University College of Law in 1987.
What legal positions did Hessinger hold before becoming a judge?
She worked in private practice handling civil litigation. Hessinger was also a prosecutor in the Pinellas County State Attorney’s Office for 16 years.
How long has Hessinger been a county court judge?
She was first elected in 2014. With her reelection in 2022, Hessinger has been a county court judge for about 9 years.
What types of cases does she handle?
As a county judge, Hessinger presides over misdemeanors, traffic offenses, small claims, landlord-tenant, and other civil legal matters.
Is Hessinger married and involved in the local community?
Yes, she has been married for over 25 years and has two grown children. Hessinger is involved with organizations like Habitat for Humanity and serves on a local food bank’s board.