Litigator, judge calls it a career

by Paul Rignell
Contributing writer

On the same day this week when Minnesota’s 10th District Court was holding interviews elsewhere to find her successor for the bench, retiring Judge Karla F. Hancock reflected on her career and courtroom service in her office at the Sherburne County Government Center in Elk River.

Former Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed her to serve in Sherburne County in December 2000 after Hancock, a resident of Andover, had applied for consideration that fall.

She had practiced law for 20 years before joining the bench, starting with a small private firm in 1980 where she worked primarily in family law before joining the St. Paul city attorney’s office in 1983, where she represented St. Paul police in the civil division, and then she joined the Hennepin County attorney’s office in 1987, representing the sheriff’s department in civil lawsuits and also serving two years as senior attorney for the drug prosecution unit.

When she enrolled at William Mitchell College of Law while in her late 20s, Hancock was really pursuing what would become a third (or even fourth) career.

For Karla Hancock it was her third and fourth career that really stuck. She practiced law for 20 years before joining the bench. (Photo by Paul Rignell)

Spending her earliest years in the Como area before moving to Roseville in third grade, she envisioned work as a veterinarian from a young age, but learned sometime after entering high school that she was allergic to dander. She went on to graduate from the University of Minnesota in 1970, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in English education, minoring in speech communications and theater arts.

Once she was standing at the front of the class, though, “I found out that I wasn’t really a teacher,” she said, “so I worked in sales for a while, then went to law school.”

Hancock found that her English background would serve her well in her legal career — “I always liked writing and literature, and actually I think writing and communication skills are big in being a successful attorney,” she said.

From the start of her work in law, she wasn’t expecting to spend much time in courtrooms. “There are many attorneys who go for years without trying a case,” she said. But that changed for her. She stood for nearly 30 trials through her 20 years as an attorney. “It was a lot of trial experience,” she said.

“The more trials I did, the more I enjoyed litigation,” she continued. “I’ve liked trying cases, both as a judge and as a lawyer.”

She reached a point as a lawyer where she felt she had done all that she could without further advancement, which is when she made known her interest in becoming a judge. “I had thought about it for a few years,” she said. “After appearing in front of judges, I always had a sense that I could do that, and that I could do it better than some of them.”

Living in the 10th Judicial District and in Anoka County, she anticipated that at some point she might be called to serve in that county’s courthouse in the city of Anoka. She was surprised to get an early call for Sherburne County. The 10th District also encompasses Wright, Kanabec, Isanti, Pine, Chisago and Washington counties, making it the state’s second largest judicial district behind Hennepin County’s 4th District, Hancock explained.

She strove to become known as a good listener behind the bench. “I always wanted to let people have a chance to be heard,” she said. When it seemed like a defense attorney might be finished speaking, Hancock would frequently ask, “Is there anything else?” often to what she sensed was eye-rolling from other court officials, she said.

She has also made a point of being thorough in explaining the reasons behind her rulings. “So they’ll know where I’m coming from,” she said, “and the more likely you (a judge’s rulings) are to be upheld.”

Hancock turned 65 last November. Earlier last year, a knee replacement surgery kept her away from the courthouse longer than she had anticipated, and inevitable surgery on the other knee is one reason why she has decided to step down from regular casework.

She has since been approved by the state Supreme Court to serve as a senior judge, which means she reserves the authority to continue hearing cases when called. She is scheduled to work hours in Wright and Kanabec counties in March, and she will continue to work two weeks out of every four in Sherburne County until her successor is named and welcomed in May. Hancock must complete 15 credits of continuing legal education annually, she said, to maintain her status as a senior judge.

“I love what I do, and the people that I’ve worked with (in Sherburne County),” Hancock said. “(The courthouse in) Elk River is one of the best-kept secrets in the (10th District) community, and in the state, possibly,” she added, explaining that court officials have had good working relationships with public defenders, city and county attorneys, and past and present sheriff’s departments.

She does look forward to less consistent stress. “Lots of cases have been memorable from the stress that goes into decision-making,” she said.

Custody cases have been among her least favorite. “The possibility is, neither parent is a great parent, but you have to decide who to give the kids to,” she said.

She is also saddened, the judge suggested, whenever she has had to sentence someone to prison out of law and responsibility to the public’s welfare. “I’ve never taken any pleasure in sending someone to prison,” she said. “Particularly for young offenders, there’s not a lot of good to come out of prison.”

With a lesser court schedule starting this spring, Hancock looks forward to having more time to care for two miniature horses that she hopes to show this summer. She shares her Andover home and farm with her daughter, son-in-law and a granddaughter, who is now 13 months old.

“Even though it’s ill-advised (due to the allergies), I still have animals,” the judge said, “except my cats live in the barn. They can’t be in the house with me.”