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Judge asked to step aside in dog case

Published July 25, 2006

CLEARWATER - The judge handling a lawsuit over the ownership of two dogs rescued and adopted after Hurricane Katrina has been asked to recuse herself because she knows and went to law school with one of the litigants.

In pleadings filed Friday, attorney Jeffrey Brown requested that Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Kathleen Hessinger recuse herself because of her acquaintance with Hillsborough prosecutor Pam Bondi, who adopted one of the dogs.

Hessinger said during a July 11 conference call that she knew Bondi and they attended law school together, according to a motion from Brown, who represents Rhonda Rineker of Dunedin, who adopted the second dog.

"Although she didn't personally feel she had a conflict of interest with defendant Bondi, she invited any counsel for the parties who had a problem with this acquaintance to let her know by Friday, July 14, 2006, and she would then remove herself as the judge on this case," Brown wrote in a motion.

On July 13, Brown notified Hessinger that he wanted her to recuse herself, but his request "was met with a surprising denial," he wrote.

"Apparently, after receiving the request to remove herself, Judge Hessinger changed her mind," Brown added.

Rineker, Bondi and the Pinellas Humane Society are being sued by Steven and Dorreen Couture of Louisiana in an effort to get back a St. Bernard and a shepherd-mix dog rescued by the Humane Society after Hurricane Katrina. The St. Bernard was later adopted by Bondi and the shepherd mix by Rineker.

Brown wrote in his motion that he "reasonably questions Judge Hessinger's ability to act fairly and impartially" because of her mention that she has a personal or social acquaintance with Bondi, her unsolicited offer to recuse herself if any party requested it, and her "baffling" refusal after Brown "made the very request she initially invited."

Efforts to reach Hessinger on Monday were unsuccessful. Bondi's attorney, Barry Cohen, and the Coutures' attorney, Murray Silverstein, both declined to comment on the motion.

[Last modified July 25, 2006, 09:02:46]

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