Updated at 3:45 p.m. March 6, 2016
Family and friends, including many in the local court system, were mourning Richard “Dick” Hanscom on Thursday, Feb. 25 — a day after the retired judge died at his San Diego home.
His death was reported Wednesday in San Diego Superior Court, and his wife, Rita, confirmed that he passed away in his sleep that morning.
Hanscom, who opened local courtrooms to TV cameras and continued working for many years after his 1999 retirement, was 84.
“Judge Dick Hanscom was a good friend, inspiring distance runner and athlete over the years to those of us with similar interests, and genuinely good man and judge who I had a pleasure to work with in both San Diego and Riverside,” said retired Judge Lillian Lim.
“He was an advocate for the litigant, always working to improve the system of justice and access to it. He was a witty man who knew what was important in life: family, community and enjoying every day and each blessing each day brought.”
A memorial service is set for 3 p.m. Tuesday, March 15, in the chapel at The Bishop’s School, 7606 La Jolla Blvd., San Diego.
Retired Judge Charles “Chuck” Patrick recalls starting UCLA law school with Hanscom in September 1955 and reuniting again in the District Attorney’s Office.
“Dick was an extremely honorable man, and very quick to recognize the efforts of others,” Patrick said. “I remember in particular that as he departed the office, he wrote a very commendatory letter to me thanking me for my efforts – and I’m quite sure I was not the only one to receive such a letter.”
Hanscom was highly respected as a prosecutor and a judge, he said, adding: “His wife and his children can take great pride in his achievements.”
Superior Court Judge Melinda Lasater said she had fond memories of Hanscom — “as a dedicated jurist who welcomed new lawyers to the profession, sharing his wisdom and experience; as a member of the legal community who was an active liaison with the bar for the betterment of the profession; and as an avid runner.”
In fact, running led to his second marriage.
Rita Hanscom, married to Dick for 33 years, said they met as members of the downtown YMCA who went on 5-mile lunchtime runs through Balboa Park.
“Many times we found ourselves just running together,” said Rita, now a world-class masters track athlete. “And I think we figured we probably ran a thousand miles together before we ever went out on a date. So we really got to know each other pretty well.”
Cause of death was not immediately known, but he had been released from a hospital Saturday after being treated for Atrial fibrillation — a heart condition involving a quivering or irregular heartbeat.
He suffered heart problems two years ago, but was dealing with it pretty well, said Rita, who works as a deputy state attorney general based in San Diego.
“He never complained,” she said. “This guy was so committed to fitness. Up until the day before he died, he was on his exercise bike, doing a workout, because he thought it was really important.”
When he couldn’t run because of knee problems, he walked. And when walking was an issue, he rode his stationary bike, she said.
“He never missed a day unless we were on an airplane,” Rita said in a phone interview. “But this was something that was so important to him that… He was really so strong and healthy.”
He lived for his family and his work; very rarely thinking about himself and even more rarely talking about himself, his family said. “A model of doing what you should do, rather than what you want to do.”
“I will remember my dad for, among other wonderful things, conveniently always losing at Candyland, leading tide-pool adventures, snorkeling in Maui, making the world’s best French toast and being an awesome criminal procedure tutor,” said his daughter, Lisa Hanscom of Los Angeles — also an attorney. “He was gentle, easygoing and incredibly smart, and I’m so proud to call him my dad.”
Eric Hanscom, a son from his first marriage, recalled his dad as always having a strong sense of justice — ended in the “perfect profession for a person of his character.”
“I still remember being at a San Diego Gulls game when the Portland Buckaroos’ Connie ‘MadDog’ Madigan got a misconduct penalty and ended up punching a referee,” Eric said. “I never saw my dad get more animated.
“He was standing up shaking his fist and bellowing at the refs to throw MadDog out of the game, shouting and yelling like he was a teenager. The worst word I ever heard him use was ‘bum.’ and I still recall him yelling ‘Madigan is a bum, throw him out! That’s just bush league!’”
Eric also depicted his dad a simple, basic person of simple, basic needs.
“We used to go backpacking together and basically live off these terrible-tasting, freeze-dried meals for a week,” Eric said via email Saturday. “But he never complained and although delighted when I could supplement the meal with some fresh trout, was perfectly content eating three meals of rehydrated mashed potatoes and walking slowly around the lakes, just taking in the trees and serenity.
“I always wondered if he would have been happy as a forest ranger, but I doubt it would have fulfilled his sense of obligation to the world to do as much good as you can during the time you have.
“He truly loved his work, as evidenced by the fact that he continued to work, and work, and work well after a normal judge would have retired. But my father was never an average judge, an average person, or an average father. I will miss him.”
Richard J. Hanscom was born in Chicago on Feb. 1, 1932, and educated at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1953.
From June 1953 to September 1955, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps, posted to Japan and South Korea and ending with a rank of lieutenant, according to a resume provided by the Superior Court.
He earned his law degree from UCLA in 1958.
Appointed by Gov. Ronald Reagan to the San Diego Municipal Court in 1972, he retired as a Superior Court judge in January 1999. But his wife says he volunteered in his same court — Department 7 — for years afterward.
“They needed him,” Rita said of his judging assignments, which sometimes saw him leave his home north of Balboa Park on Sunday night and return Friday night. “But he enjoyed the work. And he was very good at it.”
Rita said a court representative told her that when the word got out that Hanscom had passed away, “a lot of the staff who had worked for him … had stories about what a kind and patient guy he was.” She was told: “There were so many fond memories of how much they liked him.”
In 1978-1979, he was elected presiding judge of San Diego Municipal Court by unanimous vote of 20 judges. He also served on assignment to the 4th District Court of Appeal in 1983.
“I have handled every category of cases except family law,” he wrote in his resume. “I have presided over hundreds of jury trials in both criminal and civil cases. I have handled settlement assignments in both criminal and civil cases.”
He earlier had worked in the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, starting in May 1959, where he rose to chief deputy district attorney.
“I tried over 100 jury trials in the Superior Court, including major fraud and narcotics cases and 14 murder cases, two of which resulted in juries returning the death penalty,” he wrote.
In 2005, Hanscom handed $50 fines, 80 hours of community service and two years’ probation to three human-rights activists who camped in front of the Del Cerro home of San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy.
Though calling the men “nice people,” he was quoted by The San Diego Union-Tribune as saying: “The message is simple. You can’t go into a residential neighborhood and picket.”
In 2009, Hanscom sentenced the 65-year-old pastor of a Riverside County strip-mall church to two consecutive life sentences for abusing five sisters, who had been in her foster care.
Hanscom, then 77, described the case of Jessica Banks as the worst abuse case he had seen — and ordered Banks not be eligible for parole until age 97.
“I’ve been in this business a long time, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” the Riverside Press-Enterprise quoted him as saying. “It just defies belief, but it happened.”
Judge Hanscom won many honors, including:
- Award from the Girls Club of San Diego for outstanding service to that organization (1968).
- Special award from the San Diego County Bar Association for production and participation in an award-winning Day-in-Court program during Law Week 1973-1976 (1976).
- Special award of the San Diego County Bar Association for work as presiding judge in 1979 and 1980.
- President’s Award of the San Diego Press Club (1983) for his work in opening courtrooms to TV cameras.
- Award from California Western School of Law Trial Practice Program for outstanding contribution to the teaching of advocacy skills (1983).
- And a special award from the downtown San Diego YMCA for being chairman of two major 10K running races (1984).
Hanscom also served on the boards of the Girls Club of San Diego, San Diego chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism, San Diego National History Museum and the local American Cancer Society.
He wrote numerous papers, including “Police Reports as Seen by the Prosecutor,” “A Fair Trial For A Free Press” and “Cameras in the Courtroom: A Challenge For California.”
Hanscom is survived by his first wife, Jean; their daughter, Wendy, and his stepson, Eric; and three grandchildren. Besides his second wife, Rita, he is survived by a daughter, Lisa, and son, Scott, both of Los Angeles.
Services were pending.