Stewart Hancock, 91, Former Court of Appeals Judge, Dies

, New York Law Journal


Stewart Freeman Hancock Jr.
Stewart Freeman Hancock Jr.

Stewart Freeman Hancock Jr., a retired New York Court of Appeals judge known for his scholarship, humanity, liveliness and sense of the absurd—he once declared Christmas trees vegetables to sidestep a Sunday blue law—died Tuesday at his home in Cazenovia. He was 91.

Hancock served on the state's highest court from 1986 to 1993 and authored pivotal decisions in criminal law, workers rights, the right to die and free speech. He unhesitatingly rejected the U.S. Supreme Court when he felt that the New York constitution offered greater privacy protections for criminal suspects and broader protections for journalists than its federal counterpart.

"In my opinion, one of the great judges of our court," said Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. "Not only was he a great judge … he was just the sweetest, loveliest guy in the world that you could ever know. We were all very fond of him."

In his relatively brief term on the Court of Appeals, which ended with his mandatory retirement at age 70, Hancock wrote more than 200 decisions and dissents, many of them articulating a common theme: fundamental fairness. One of his more memorable dissents, in the so-called "America's Cup case," defined his commitment to evenhandedness.

Mercury Bay Boating Club Inc. v. San Diego Yacht Club, an internationally watched case of almost no legal significance, involved a yacht race where the U.S. crew used an inherently faster, multihull catamaran to guarantee its victory in the prestigious America's Cup contest. The court deemed the stunt poor sportsmanship, but found no legal bar and awarded the cup to San Diego. Hancock dissented, arguing that the court's decision was unfair and therefore wrong.

Judith Kaye, who served as chief judge for Hancock's final year on the court, said in a tribute published in the Albany Law Review when Hancock retired that her colleague's dissent in the America's Cup case "evidences not only his mastery of seacraft but also his abiding commitment to fairness in sport as in life."

Vincent Bonventre, an Albany Law School professor who clerked for Hancock, said the judge "had an exquisite sense of justice," matched only by boundless energy and enthusiasm.

"He worked me to the bone, and he worked himself to the bone even more so," Bonventre said. "This was somebody who absolutely loved his work. He loved researching the law. He loved writing opinions. It was wonderful, and exhausting, working for him."

On the bench, Hancock was known for a soft spoken disarming politeness, typically inquiring of counsel, "May I ask you a question?" as if there was any choice in the matter. Often, the do-or-die question he asked went to the heart of the case. But he also tended to make face-saving—if not case-saving—comments to counsel he had so politely pilloried.

"A delightful, delightful man and a great loss," said Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick, a now retired Court of Appeals judge who took Hancock's seat when he left the bench in 1993.

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