New to the Bench: Hon. Kathleen D. Sheehy
Thursday, November 1, 2012
by: Erin C. Martin, Contributing Author
Hon. Kathleen D. Sheehy
Ms. Martin is an associate attorney with Stringer & Rohleder. Her practice focuses on civil litigation, insurance defense, arbitration, and personal injury.
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1984 J.D., magna cum laude, University of Minnesota
1978 B.A., Journalism, University of Minnesota
2002-2012 Administrative Law Judge, State of Minnesota, Office of Administrative Hearings
1995-2002 Contract Administrative Law Judge, State of Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings
1986-1995 Associate and Partner, Dorsey & Whitney
1984-1986 Law Clerk, Minnesota Court of Appeals, Hon. Harriet Lansing and Hon. Edward Parker
1979-1981 Assistant Editor, McGraw-Hill, Inc.
Kathleen D. Sheehy was appointed judge of the Fourth Judicial District on May 30, 2012. In announcing the appointment, Gov. Mark Dayton commended Sheehy’s outstanding legal skills, impressive professional accomplishments, and proven commitment to public service.
Judge Sheehy was born in Omaha, Nebraska, but spent her childhood moving all over the country with her family. Her father became a special agent with the FBI shortly after graduating from law school, and his work required the family to relocate every two years. They lived in New Orleans, La., where her father investigated violations of voting rights; the highly charged atmosphere and injustices witnessed first-hand made strong and lasting impressions on the family. Other moves included California, New York, and finally Milwaukee, Wis. Fluent in Sicilian and Italian, he participated in investigations of organized crime. Judge Sheehy and her three sisters finished high school in the area after their father subsequently became the assistant general counsel at Miller Brewing Company, later retiring as president and CEO after 27 years.
Moving so often made the family very close and allowed Sheehy to develop a unique perspective that would later serve her well as an administrative law judge and, ultimately, a district court judge. “All of that moving gave me the perspective of someone who’s always outside the system looking in. It gave me the ability to question why things are the way they are, who sets the rules, and whose interests those rules are advancing,” says Sheehy.
At the University of Minnesota, Sheehy majored in journalism with a concentration in criminal justice. After finishing her undergraduate education, she worked as an assistant editor at McGraw-Hill, Inc. in Minneapolis for two years. “I loved writing and editing in college, and wanted to find out what it would be like to be a part of that profession,” she recalls, “but I always had law school in the back of my mind.”
In 1981, Sheehy enrolled at the University of Minnesota Law School alongside her husband, whom she married shortly after graduating from college. Her decision to pursue a law degree was inspired by her father’s distinguished career, as well as two books that she read during college: Anthony Lewis’ Gideon’s Trumpet, which tells the story behind the landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright that established the right to counsel, and Unequal Justice by Jerold Auerbach that traces the history of lawyers’ impact on social change in modern America. “I had this idea when I decided to go to law school that I could be a writer and write about legal issues in the way that those two authors had done,” she remembers.
Her orientation toward the practice of law began to shift while in law school, however. “I realized that I didn’t have to be an author and publish books to communicate effectively about issues of justice. In every case, there’s a struggle for justice occurring in some respect,” says Sheehy. “I became really interested and intrigued by what these cases reflect about us and our society,” she recalls.
Upon graduating from law school in 1984, Sheehy went on to clerk for Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Harriet Lansing and Judge Edward Parker. It was the first full year of the court’s existence, and there was a tremendous volume of cases because “everyone was appealing everything,” remembers Sheehy.
Lansing and Parker became lifelong mentors and friends to Sheehy. Lansing administered the oath for Sheehy when she was sworn in as district court judge. “Both were very hard-working, dedicated judges, who communicated a sense of enjoying their work and feeling lucky to be able to do it, while also understanding the responsibilities involved in being an appellate judge,” says Sheehy.
The experience proved to be profoundly inspiring, and it was during her time as a judicial law clerk that Sheehy decided she wanted to become a judge some day. “I found myself thinking, ‘I would do it this way,’ or ‘I would do it that way.’ Even at a very early point in my career, I had ideas about how I might make decisions and handle cases as a judge,” she says.
After her clerkship, Sheehy was anxious to gain experience as a practicing lawyer. In 1986, she accepted an associate position in the litigation department at Dorsey & Whitney where she would eventually become a partner in 1993. Her practice consisted of commercial, antitrust, and employment litigation. “It was incredibly interesting work, and I learned so much from the many great people I worked with,” says Sheehy. But in 1995, Sheehy began to think seriously about the direction she wanted to move in her legal career. When the opportunity to do work as a contract judge at the Office of Administrative Hearings arose, Sheehy “leapt at the chance without a moment’s hesitation.”
Sheehy served as an administrative law judge for 17 years, having been appointed to a full-time position in 2002. In that role, Sheehy conducted hearings and drafted reports in contested cases in all substantive areas, conducted mediations and rule hearings, and reviewed rules proposed by state agencies. She developed expertise in telecommunications and utility issues, and also heard many special education cases. “It was tremendously interesting and rewarding for me. I learned so much about being a judge, and developed a disciplined approach to analyzing cases,” Sheehy says.
On May 30, 2012, Sheehy was appointed to the Hennepin County District Court bench. Tragically, only six weeks prior to her appointment, Sheehy suffered the untimely loss of her beloved husband of 32 years and the father to their three daughters, who was a deeply admired and respected attorney in Minneapolis. The appointment was a “ray of sunshine” at a time of profound darkness and grief. “I was extremely grateful, and saw it as an opportunity to learn new things, keep engaged in the profession, and be of service to the people of the state in a whole new way,” says Sheehy. “It made me feel very hopeful that I could spend the rest of my career doing good things and being of use,” she recalls.
As a district court judge, Sheehy hopes to be known as efficient, hardworking, fair, and knowledgeable. “I think a good judge is patient and cordial at all times, interested in the litigants, a good listener, and one who has an acute sense of ethics and integrity,” says Sheehy. She appreciates lawyers who are well prepared and sincere in their efforts to help their clients, because “that’s when the system works best.”
The perspective Sheehy gained as a young child informs her decisions on the bench today. “When cases go to trial, it’s not about the judge. The case belongs to the parties, and the judge’s role is to make sure that the process is fair and appears to be fair,” she says. “In every case, you have to struggle with the issue of how a particular result would appear to someone who is outside the system, and what kind of impression we are conveying about the quality of justice,” says Sheehy.
Throughout her career, Sheehy has also found time to be active in the community. She has been a Community Crime Prevention Block Club leader with the Minneapolis Police Department for the past 15 years, and has served as a parent volunteer with Southwest High School, Kenny Community School, and Anthony Middle School.
Sheehy’s breadth of professional and personal experience is sure to serve her well as district court judge. “When people feel like they’ve been heard and understood, they believe the system works—even if they don’t get the result they want,” says Sheehy. “My hope is that I can bring that approach to the very important work that goes on in the district court rooms.”
Hennepin County is very fortunate that Judge Sheehy brings to the bench her highly developed sense of objectivity, clear and thoughtful decision-making process, and passion for justice.