Politics

Ellen Ash Peters, Pioneer on the Connecticut Bench, Dies at 94

Ellen Ash Peters, a legal trailblazer who was the first woman on the faculty of Yale Law School and the first female chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, and who wrote a landmark civil rights decision in 1996 desegregating public schools in Hartford, died on Wednesday at her home in West Hartford. She was 94.

Her death was confirmed by her son James Peters.

Justice Peters was a law-school professor until she was 48. She graduated first in her Yale Law School class in 1954 and, after clerking for a federal judge, returned to Yale as an assistant professor in 1956. She was made a full professor eight years later. In 1978, she was appointed an associate justice on Connecticut’s highest court.

“I think a fair number of my colleagues expected me to teach for a few years and then disappear and have babies,” she told The New York Times that year. “I’m not sure when I knew that was nonsense.”

Both her father and a grandfather had been lawyers in Germany, and after her parents fled with their family to New York in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution, her father encouraged her pursuit of the law. It was an era when very few women were lawyers, but, she said in 1978, it “never occurred to me to be anything else.”

Justice Peters’s field was contract and commercial law, about which she wrote articles and a textbook. But when Gov. Ella T. Grasso of Connecticut, a Democrat, bypassed judges in the state court system to name her to the highest court, it caused a stir because she had no trial experience. She said she would take a crash course in criminal procedure from a Yale Law School colleague.

She quickly got up to speed. Six years later, when Gov. William A. O’Neill, also a Democrat, nominated her for chief justice, the justice she would replace, John A. Speziale, said, “Her crisp, clear, concise, but also erudite opinions have already made an indelible mark on this court.”

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