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April 18, 2024

Ellen Peters, trailblazing CT justice, dies at 94


Ellen Ash Peters, the Yale academic who upended the insular network that had shaped Connecticut’s courts for centuries, becoming the first woman to sit on the state Supreme Court and then serve as its chief justice, died Wednesday. She was 94.

Her death was announced by the court.

Peters was nominated as an associate justice of the state’s highest court in 1978 by Gov. Ella T. Grasso, who broke with tradition by going outside the ranks of trial judges for the first time to place a scholar on a court with a narrow, if stolid, approach to the law.

Gov. William A. O’Neill elevated her to chief justice in 1984, setting the stage for her to write an opinion in Sheff v. O’Neill, a landmark case that not only redefined the state’s responsibility for equality and adequate spending for education, but marked a coming of age for the court.

“I think the Supreme Court had a general reputation of never taking on anything of controversy,” said Howard Rifkin, a legal aide to O’Neill. “A lot of their rulings had been as narrow as possible, often based on procedural issues.”

With Peters at the helm, the court became a venue for litigants to explore the potential influence of state constitutional jurisprudence, which former Justice Richard Palmer said Wednesday had been “really sort of a backwater” compared to federal constitutional cases involving civil rights.

“Ellen was one of the very first in the country who acknowledged and realized the state constitution provides rights that are at least co-existent and in many cases exceed the rights in the federal constitution,” said Palmer, who followed Peters to the court as a nominee of Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr.

Palmer was the author of opinions that relied on the state Constitution in repealing the last vestiges of capital punishment in Connecticut and establishing same-sex marriage as a right.

Palmer was the second justice named to the court after Peters without first serving as a trial judge on the Superior Court. Andrew McDonald, an appointee of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, was the third. Other have followed, mostly recently Nora Dannehy, an appointee of Gov. Ned Lamont.

Until her appointment by Grasso and elevation by O’Neill, two products of a Democratic machine that had rewarded loyalty, seniority and familiarity in most things, the courts were dominated by white men with political resumes or, at the very least, connections.

Judges played an influential role in the selection of prosecutors and public defenders, meaning that the personality of the court rippled throughout the system. 

The bench is far more diverse today in terms of gender, race and professional background.

“This evolution could basically be traced back to Ellen Peters,” said Michael P. Lawlor, a former lawmaker who became a close observer of the courts as the long-serving co-chair of the Judiciary Committee.

Elevation to the Supreme Court was largely a function of seniority, which affected both the makeup of the court and the tenure of its members.

“Everybody was an older white guy,” Palmer recalled. “The process was the most senior Superior Court judge was automatically elevated to the Supreme Court, and the most senior all were older white men.”

Appointment often came when a judge was in their mid or late 60s, a capstone before the mandatory retirement age of 70. When O’Neill chose Peters as chief justice, she already had become the senior associate justice after only six years on the court.

But Peters was 48 when joining the court in 1978 and 54 when becoming its chief. She served on the court for 22 years, retiring after turning 70 in 2000. She worked on the Appellate Court for another 14 years as a trial judge referee.

When nominated by Grasso, the first woman elected governor of any state in the U.S. without being preceded by her husband in the office, Peters had been on the law faculty at Yale for more than two decades, combining a legal career with a family.

”I think a fair number of my colleagues expected me to teach for a few years and then disappear and have babies,” Peters said an interview after her nomination in 1978. ”I’m not sure when I knew that was nonsense.’’

Under Peters’ leadership, the judicial system examined itself for fairness and welcomed cameras in courtrooms.

Chief Justice Richard A. Robinson, who argued before Peters as a lawyer and served with her on Appellate Court cases, said she was instrumental at recognizing “the importance of fairness, openness, transparency and providing true equal access to justice for all.”

She organized two task forces that assessed gender and racial bias in the courts, each producing reports that Robinson says are “the basis for continuing progress in these two very important areas.”

Ellen Ash was born in Berlin on March 21, 1930. Her father was Jewish, and the family fled Germany in 1938, settling in New York City a year later after a stay in the Netherlands. Her father and grandfather were lawyers.

She attended Hunter College High School, Swarthmore College and Yale Law School, graduating with honors from the law school in 1954. She clerked for a federal appellate judge, taught at Berkley for a year and then returned to New Haven to join  the Yale faculty.

A  marriage to Dr. Robert Peters ended in divorce. Her second husband, Phillip I. Blumberg, was a former dean at the University of Connecticut Law School. She had three children from her first marriage.

Information on survivors and services was not immediately available Wednesday.

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