NEW ORLEANS -- Generations of New Orleanians got to know Gerard Hansen as the man behind the counter at Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, the gregarious guy shaving ice under the watchful eyes of his parents, Ernest and Mary, founders of the popular snowball stand.
But in a world apart from the Uptown institution, Hansen crossed paths with thousands more people waiting in line for not so happy reasons. For 39 years, Judge Hansen was the first court official encountered by New Orleans criminal defendants after being arrested.
Hansen’s last day on the bench is Halloween.
As the city’s lone state magistrate judge for the 35 years, Hansen set bail for a daily parade of hardened felons and first-time offenders, dope dealers and their often strung-out customers, and sometimes, innocent people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As one of the longest-serving judges in the state, Hansen began setting bail and extraditing fugitives even before he won his first election in 1978. That’s because he did the same thing as an appointed court commissioner for four years before he was elected.
As the longtime magistrate judge in the only parish that has such a full-time position, Hansen easily holds the state record for the most bail settings by a criminal court judge.
“I’ve set probably a hundred thousand bonds over last 30 years, probably several hundred thousand,” he said. “And I’m sure I’ve made a mistake every once in a while.”
In his typical jovial and self-effacing manner, Hansen is quick to point out that his very first ruling as a judge was reversed by the Louisiana Supreme Court.
“I came in and I had my first hearing and I made a mistake,” he recalled with a chuckle. “It was a probable cause hearing and it was reversed by the Supreme Court. What a way to start.”
But as many of his friends, colleagues and protégés testified at his going away party in his courtroom last week, Hansen will be remembered mostly for the many things he did right in a courthouse full of rough-and-tumble pitfalls and politics.
“You’ve helped a lot of people just sitting here on this bench,” said Judge Frank Marullo, one of the few judges in the state who have served longer than Hansen. “And you’ve affected a lot of lives. We’re going to miss you a lot. And the people who come here are going to miss you also.”
As a magistrate judge, Hansen never presided over felony trials or sent defendants to death row, but he was instrumental in launching the now widely used rehabilitative programs like drug court and domestic violence court.
Some drug court defendants still return years later to thank him. He recruited one former defendant to be a regular speaker to his other drug court participants.
“Jerry had the compassion for people,” Marullo said. “His drug courts and victims of domestic violence benefited tremendously from his work on the bench.”
At his send-off party, dozens of judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys recalled how they made their rookie court appearances before Hansen in magistrate court. Many of them talked about how he helped the nervous first-time attorneys feel comfortable.
“He was a mentor to me and to hundreds of other attorneys,” said veteran defense attorney Aaron Rives. “Anyone who passed through this building learned something from Judge Hansen.”
Members of Hansen’s loyal courtroom staff are also fixtures at Tulane and Broad, and most are leaving with him. Court reporter Kathy Falcone, assistant Darlene Durel and law clerk Barbara Cruthirds are retiring with more than 80 years of experience between them.
Hansen said he learned many of his life lessons at his parent's snowball stand, where he grew up as a kid and helped out on weekends throughout his career as a judge. The business is now owned and operated by Hansen's daughter Ashley.
Hansen said she’s already recruited him to help out.
"She says, 'Daddy, now that you're retiring. I want you to come back and be a Hansen's Sno-Bliz greeter,'" he said. “I shaved ice there for 30 years with my parents, so I think I can handle it.”
While Hansen’s connection to the snowball stand almost never spilled over into his judicial career, it did give him a boost during his first election. Hansen started as a decided underdog in that race, until his beloved snowball-serving parents lent their voices to a political ad on the radio using their trademark phrase, “There’s no shortcut to quality.”
"It's a great legacy,” Hansen said. “I'm very proud of it. As a matter of fact, half the time I'm not known as Judge Hansen. I'm known as the snowball people's son."
Ernest and Mary Hansen, who remained fixtures at the snowball stand long after their ice-shaving days were ended, both died months after Hurricane Katrina at the age of 95. Now Judge Hansen said it’s his turn to spend his summers serving the icy treats, especially his personal favorite: nectar cream.
“We have a lot of fancy new flavors like Satsuma and ginger, but I guess I’m an old traditionalist,” he said. “But more than anything I love the people. I can’t think of a better way to spend my retirement.”