In his decades-long career, Judge Francis X. Hennessy made an impression on everyone he met, including clerks who considered him ‘salt of the earth.’ Known for being humble, wise and funny, the former state Appellate Court judge died last week.
He was 82 and lived in West Hartford.
By all accounts Hennessy lived a full life and then some.
Hennessy earned a Purple Heart for his service in the U.S. Army, was involved in politics early in his career and went on to spend 36 years with the state Judicial Branch as a trial judge, administrative judge and appellate judge. He retired in 2000 as a full-time sitting appellate judge but continued to work as a judge trial referee until recently.
“I was deeply saddened by the news,” said Benjamin Gettinger, an associate at Lynch, Traub, Keefe & Errante, who began his career as a clerk for Hennessy. “I’ve never met anybody quite like Judge Hennessy. He was literally loved by everybody he came into contact with. He was generous with all of the law clerks. Everybody in my class of law clerks is deeply saddened by the news. It’s almost as if everybody lost a grandfather.”
Gettinger said that even after clerking for the judge, Hennessy would check in with him from time-to-time to see how his legal career was going.
“I can’t overstate what he meant to me as a mentor and somebody I had respect for in every aspect of his life,” said Gettinger. He noted that Hennessy would often tell him about his experiences in the service, with politics or about his family.
Long time judge Aaron Ment also remembered Hennessy fondly. Ment was chief court administrator when Hennessy was promoted to deputy chief court administrator in the 1980s.
“He was beyond smart, he was wise,” said Ment, who is now a judge trial referee. “He was someone who was certainly one of the leaders in the last 30 years in the judicial system.”
Hennessy began his judicial service in 1976, when he was appointed a juvenile court judge by then governor Ella Grasso. Through his judicial career he served as the first administrative judge of the combined Family and Juvenile Division of the Superior Court.
“His special expertise or special feeling was for juvenile and family matters, especially juvenile,” recalled Ment. “He understood how important the juvenile portions of our courts were and how in some ways is the most important. It can affect the greatest change in people’s lives…Frank knew the importance of that and emphasized that when working to improve various parts of the Judicial Branch.”
After working a number of years in the mid-80s under Ment, Hennessy was promoted to the state Appellate Court in 1994.
“It was a great loss for the administration of the Judicial Branch,” said Ment. “It was a gain for the Appellate Court but a loss for the rest of us.”
While on the bench, Hennessy was a strong advocate for equal access to the courts for women and minorities, co-chairing the Connecticut Task Force on Gender Justice and the Courts, and Connecticut’s Task Force on Minority Fairness. He was also recognized as a national leader in juvenile justice reform, emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment for juvenile offenders.
While on the Appellate Court, it was fairly common for Hennessy to be invited to preside on and author state Supreme Court opinions when a justice could not serve on a particular case.
Wesley W. Horton, who specializes in appellate work, also had nothing but praise when remembering Hennessy.
“He was a wonderful appellate judge,” said Horton. “He always had an excellent temperament. I liked him a lot.”
Horton said Hennessy was also an excellent speaker and had a great sense of humor, often speaking at bar events.
“He had everyone in stitches,” said Horton. “You wouldn’t think that [about him] by looking at him. He could’ve been a comedian he was so funny.”
William F. Gallagher, another longtime appellate lawyer, agreed with Horton’s assessment of Hennessy’s bench demeanor.
“He was very pleasant in his questioning,” said Gallagher. “He never seemed angered. Some judges get aggressive in their questioning. He wasn’t like that. He was always a gentleman.”
In addition to his legal career, Judge Hennessy served his country in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He received the Purple Heart and Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
Gettinger said many people might not know about Hennessy’s honors for serving his country.
“It wasn’t something he talked about or paraded around,” Gettinger said.
Early in his career, while in private practice, Hennessy served as Democratic Town Chairman of Windsor and was an advisor to a number of statewide political campaigns including the gubernatorial campaigns of Emilio “Mim” Daddario and Ella Grasso.
As if Hennessy wasn’t busy enough, he also served on the American Heart Association’s National Board of Directors, the Connecticut State Library Board, Sheriff’s Advisory Board, and Gaming Commission.
Hennessy, a New York City native who attended Fordham University and later the University of Connecticut School of Law, leaves behind his wife of 55 years, Mary Frances, their four children and six grandchildren.
“I could best describe him as ‘salt of the earth,’” recalled Frank Bartlett Jr., another former law clerk to Hennessy, “a person I was lucky to have known and even luckier to have worked for.”•