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Judge judged superior by peers
Through the window of his chambers, Island County Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock can see a small, red house that once was known as Polly Harpole’s Maternity Home. He was born there on a cold winter day 58 years ago.
Hancock never strayed far from Central Whidbey, an area that his ancestors helped settle in the 19th Century. But from the small jurisdiction of Island County, he’s built a statewide reputation as a highly intelligent, fair and ethical judge.
“He’s greatly admired as a judge throughout the state,” Judge Vickie Churchill said, “and Island County is so lucky to have had him as a judge over the last 20 years.”
Hancock recently received the 20 Year Judicial Service Award from the Washington State Association for Justice in honor of his two decades on the bench. He received a bust of former United States Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, which now sits in his chambers.
“I consider being a judge my calling, my vocation,” Hancock said. “It’s something I feel I was cut out to do.”
When the history of this period is written, Hancock will inevitably be remembered as one of the most important and interesting Whidbey Island residents — with and without the robes.
“He’s a remarkable man,” his wife, Elizabeth, said. “Extraordinary. One of a kind. He has a strong sense of duty, empathy and respect. He treats everyone who comes to court with respect.”
He’s a memorable character in the Coupeville community. He rides his bike to court from the family farm whenever the weather allows. He picked up the moniker “Judge Ace Hancock” because of the leather aviator helmet he used to wear in flights to the San Juan County court. He’s an avid Mariners fan and can quote baseball statistics going back 75 years. He plays croquet and knows the formal rules.
Most famously, he plays the bagpipe and sometimes marches at events in a Scottish outfit, kilt included, with a pipe band or solo. The bagpipe is a bit of a obsession for him. He was an eighth grader in Coupeville when he sent away to get his first bagpipe and taught himself to play, though he took lessons later in life.
“From earliest memory, I thought the sound of bagpipes was the greatest sound in the world,” he said. “The sound really strikes me to the core.”
Oak Harbor attorney Chris Skinner, who’s known Hancock for 30 years, said local attorneys and friends refer to Hancock as a “Renaissance man” because of his wide range of interests.
Hancock is a serious jurist and a consummate gentleman, but he still knows how to have a good time. Skinner remembers seeing Hancock, a tall and skinny figure, playing croquet while wearing a kilt one summer day.
“Those thin legs sticking out of a kilt on a croquet field is a pretty funny sight,” Skinner said.
Hancock grew up on the farm his great-grandfather, Ernest Hancock, established in the 1870s as “Aloha Farms.” Another one of his ancestors is Samuel Hancock, who led a wagon trail along the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and wrote about it. He ended up settling in Central Whidbey; Lake Hancock is named after him.
With those deep roots, it’s no surprise Hancock didn’t want to go far from Central Whidbey. He graduated as valedictorian from Coupeville High School in 1969. He went on to Western Washington University and majored in philosophy. After graduating, he decided to go to law school at the University of Washington.
“I’ve always been interested in the life of the mind,” he said. “The law seemed like the best way to apply my philosophical training.”
On the day after he took the bar exam, in July of 1976, Hancock and his wife moved back to Coupeville and he set up a private practice for a short time. He then went to work at the Island County Prosecutor’s Office as a deputy prosecutor, a job he held for eight years.
One of the major cases he handled involved Northern Tier Pipeland Company’s proposal to build a gas pipeline from Port Angeles to Minnesota. The proposed pipeline would have run across sensitive areas of Whidbey and Camano islands, so county officials tried to stop the project. They were joined by officials from other juridictions. Hancock represented the county in an 18-month trial and was ultimately successful.
“It was sort of a David and Goliath struggle,” he said. “They had unlimited resources. We cobbled together what resources we could.”
Hancock knew from early in his legal career that he wanted to be a judge. To get experience on the defense side of the law, he took a job with the Oak Harbor law firm Zylstra, Beeksma, Waller and Skinner. He worked on a murder case with Skinner, but mainly handled civil issues.
In 1988, Superior Court Judge Howard Patrick was required to retire by the state constitution because he was 75 years old. Hancock decided to run for the judgeship, but he wasn’t alone. County Prosecutor David Thiele, Hancock’s former boss, and Friday Harbor attorney Carla Higgenson also threw their hats in the ring. The superior court judges presided in both Island and San Juan counties until 2008.
Hancock won by 66 percent and went on to win reelection five times since. He said the first campaign was a lot of work, but a great experience.
“I lost 15 pounds during the campaign,” he said. “I can’t afford to lose much weight. There’s not a lot of meat on my bones.”
Hancock’s friend, Oak Harbor resident Trudy Sundberg, helped run the campaign. They are both constitutional scholars, avid readers and share a love of the works of the painter William Turner and writer James Joyce.
“I think he’s brilliant and extremely fair,” she said. “He’s an independent, logical, thinking, caring judge.”
On the bench, Hancock is a fatherly figure who exudes a sense of authority and unearthly patience. He doesn’t like the idea of so-called activist judges, but feels that the law should be something that’s beyond politics or personal feelings.
“He’s the quintessential judge in many ways,” Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said. “He’s very analytic and precise. He’s a very bright person and he has an amazing memory. I think he loves the law and I think he always tries to be faithful to the law.”
His friends and colleagues question whether Hancock has ever lost his temper. In burgeoning court rooms of upset and confused people, the judge is able to maintaining order without being disrespectful or lashing out.
“He can be stern, but he’s always very careful of being respectful,” Skinner said.
Hancock said he always tries to remember that he’s a public servant with a lot of power over people’s lives. He strives to give his time and attention to each person.
“When people come to court, you know it’s got to be one of the most important things that has ever happened in their lives,” he said.
Also, Hancock said unimpeachable honesty and ethics is vital for a judge. He currently serves as chair of the Washington State Supreme Court’s Ethics Advisory Committee and co-chairs its Code of Judicial Conduct Task Force, which Churchill described as great honors.
Skinner said attorneys he speaks to in other counties inevitably mention how much they like Hancock. The state bar association even honored him with the Outstanding Judge Award.
“That’s how well respected Hancock is,” Skinner said. “It’s something that is just universal.”
Hancock and Churchill have worked to make the court more efficient and to provide access to justice for all citizens. The programs they’ve started include Court Appointed Special Advocates in dependency cases, three drug courts, family law mediation, parenting seminars and a court house facilitator to help people who can’t afford attorneys.
Outside of the court, Hancock is involved in the Coupeville community and beyond, but his life centers on his family. He and Elizabeth have been married for 33 years. “She is the love of my life,” he said.
His parents, Robert and Agnes Hancock, both passed away in 2007, after 67 years of marriage. Judge Hancock inherited the historic family farm, located in the heart of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. He and Elizabeth are currently restoring the old farmhouse.
Their son Benjamin and his wife Wendy live in Santa Monica, Calif. He works as a CPA for Moss Adams. Their daughter Emily is an attorney who works as a law clerk for a superior court judge in Snohomish County. Hancock had the pleasure of swearing her in last May.
“It’s fun to listen to her and her father talk about the law,” Elizabeth said. “They speak the same language.”
While Coupeville will always be Hancock’s home, he may someday serve on a court he cannot pedal to. He said he would like to run for a seat on the Appeals Court or state Supreme Court. Judging from his reputation, he’s the right man for the job.