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.

“A ‘gentleman’ is certainly one good way to describe him,” said former colleague Richard Simons, a Court of Appeals judge who was on the bench with Hancock for his entire tenure. “He was first-class all the way.”

Hancock, a descendant of Founding Father John Hancock, came from a long line of Central New York luminaries and was at times jokingly described as the court’s “token blue blood.”

His paternal grandfather, Theodore Hancock, was New York’s attorney general from 1894 to 1898 and founder of the Syracuse firm of Hancock & Estabrook. His maternal grandfather, Peter McLennan, was presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Fourth Department in the early part of the 20th century. Hancock’s father, Stewart Sr., was a prominent attorney who served as local counsel to President Theodore Roosevelt in a 1915 libel action. And the Syracuse airport is named for his uncle, Charles Hancock, who had represented the area in Congress.

But former colleagues say Hancock was anything but stuffy or pretentious and, in his decisions, seemingly represented the common man more than the aristocrat.

In chambers, he was a playful presence, standing on his head to the amusement and bewilderment of his clerks. When he was forced off the court by the mandatory retirement rule, Hancock, who had not missed a day of work due to sickness in 23 years, wrote (and sang) a ditty that, to this day, adorns the court’s Christmas tree every holiday season.

Hancock had a history with Christmas trees and once, as the Syracuse corporation counsel, decreed them vegetables so merchants in Central New York could sell them without violating a local law limiting sales on the Christian Sabbath.

A 1945 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where the yearbook editors recognized his “quick mind,” Hancock spent 31/2 years on active duty before enrolling in Cornell Law School.

After graduating sixth in his 1950 class, Hancock requested a return to active duty as a reserve officer during the Korean War and served in the Sea of Japan. When he came home, he joined the family firm, Hancock & Estabrook.

Hancock served as Syracuse corporation counsel in 1962 and 1963 and became Onondaga County Republican chairman in 1964.

Two years later, he attempted to follow his uncle’s footsteps to Congress, but was trounced by the incumbent. As something of a consolation prize, he was tapped to fill a vacancy on the state Supreme Court bench, and began a judicial career in which he would serve in every level of state court.

In 1977, Governor Hugh Carey promoted Hancock to the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, the same court in Rochester where his grandfather had served as presiding justice decades earlier. He applied repeatedly for appointment to the Court of Appeals, and on his third bid finally won the support of Governor Mario Cuomo.

After retiring, Hancock returned to the family firm where he concentrated on appellate practice, acted as a mediator and arbitrator and served as an expert witness in matters of New York law in domestic and international cases, according to a statement by Janet Callahan, managing partner at Hancock & Estabrook. She said he was also a visiting professor and judge in residence at Syracuse University College of Law, provided pro bono appellate representation through the Hiscock Legal Aid Society and was chief appellate judge for the Oneida Indian Nation Tribal Court.

Hancock argued several cases at the Court of Appeals and most recently prevailed in People v. Ingram, 18 NY3d 948 (2012). In the March 29, 2012, ruling, the court agreed with his argument that police exceeded their authority by searching a youth for drugs after he gave police in Syracuse a false name when they stopped a vehicle in which he was a passenger.

“All of us who knew and loved Judge Hancock have suffered a great loss with his passing,” Callahan said. “We will miss his quick wit, his clever turn of a phrase and his ever-present good will. We will miss his youthful enthusiasm and his self-deprecating sense of humor, his love of the law, his scintillating intellect and his vital energy.”

Hancock is survived by his wife, Ruth, five children and 13 grandchildren.

Gary Spencer, spokesman for the Court of Appeals, said the flags at the court will remain at half-staff for the remainder of the week in Hancock’s honor.