Ellen Ash Peters, first female chief justice of Connecticut Supreme Court, dies at 94

Apr 17, 2024, 3:04 PM

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Ellen Ash Peters, who was the first woman to serve as Connecticut’s chief justice and wrote the majority opinion in the state Supreme Court’s landmark school desegregation ruling in 1996, has died. She was 94.

Peters, who also was the first female faculty member at Yale Law School, passed away Tuesday, according to the Connecticut Judicial Branch. The cause and location of her death were not immediately disclosed.

“What a trailblazer she was!” the current chief justice, Richard Robinson, said in a statement. “While small in stature, she was a fearless legal giant who was dedicated to upholding the rule of law. She also recognized the importance of fairness, openness, transparency and providing true equal access to justice for all.”

Peters was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 1978 by then-Gov. Ella Grasso, a Democrat and the first woman who was not a spouse or widow of a former governor to be elected the governor of a U.S. state. Peters was also the first woman to serve on the state’s highest court. She became chief justice in 1984, served on the court until 1996 and later took part-time senior status.

In her last year as chief justice, Peters wrote the majority opinion in a 4-3 ruling in the Sheff v. O’Neill case, declaring the segregation of Hartford-area schools to be unconstitutional. In particular, the majority said the extreme racial isolation of minorities in Hartford schools deprived them of a state constitutional right to equal education.

“In staying our hand, we do not wish to be misunderstood about the urgency of finding an appropriate remedy for the plight of Hartford’s schoolchildren,” Peters wrote. ”Every passing day shortchanges these children in their ability to contribute to their own well-being and to that of this state and nation.”

In response, the state legislature created a network of magnet schools and school choice options to attract a mix of city and suburban children. But the legal case that prompted the ruling continued to be litigated because of what advocates said were continuing inequalities until 2022, when a settlement was reached.

During her time on the Supreme Court, Peters presided over cases ranging from ones involving the death penalty to property disputes. She also led an effort to prevent gender and racial bias in the court system.

In 1995, she wrote the majority opinion in a ruling that upheld the state’s ban on assault weapons.

On her last day as chief justice, she spoke of the importance of preserving justice for all people.

“The court embodies the pluralist spirit of America,” Peters said. “If the court is to be a leader in the development of the law, it must be prepared to respond″ to all of the population.

Peters was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1930. Her family fled eight years later in fear of Nazi party rule and emigrated to New York City, according to a biography by Yale Law School.

She went on to graduate from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1951 and from Yale Law School in 1954. After law school, she was a clerk for a federal appeals court judge in New York City and then taught at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1956, when she was 26, she became Yale Law School’s first female faculty member, according to the university.

Peters also became the first woman to earn tenure at Yale Law School, in 1964. After being appointed to the Supreme Court, she continued to teach law at Yale as an adjunct professor until she became chief justice.

The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at a 1994 event, said Peters “gave generations of women law students cause for hope (and) a reason to believe that they, too, could aspire and achieve.”

Top political leaders and legal experts were praising Peters on Tuesday.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, also called Peters a trailblazer and noted the importance of the school desegregation ruling.

“Throughout her tenure, she dedicated her work to ensuring that Connecticut’s courts are operated fairly and are equally accessible to all of this state’s residents,” Lamont said in a statement. “Her service is to be emulated and she will be remembered for her intelligence, her tenacity, and her remarkable fortitude.”

Former Connecticut Chief Justice Chase Rogers, the state’s second female chief justice who retired in 2018, said Peters was a brilliant jurist dedicated to ensuring justice was achieved.

“Chief Justice Peters not only smashed the glass ceiling for other women who wanted to become judges but also served as a role model for all judges,” Rogers said.

Peters’ husband, Phillip Blumberg, who was a professor and dean at the University of Connecticut School of Law, died in 2021. They lived in West Hartford.

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Ellen Ash Peters, first female chief justice of Connecticut Supreme Court, dies at 94