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    Sunday, May 19, 2024

    Former Conn. Chief Justice Ellen Ash Peters, pioneer among women in law, dies

    Ellen Ash Peters, a former chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court and a groundbreaking figure among women in the law, has died, colleagues said Tuesday. She was 94.

    Peters was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, the first woman named chief justice and, before that, was the first woman to gain tenure at the Yale Law School.

    Peters wrote the majority opinion in the court’s landmark 1996 Sheff v O’Neill decision, which extended civil rights to the right to a public school education, holding that the state has an obligation to provide school children with equal educational opportunities.

    The court’s conclusion, that equal educational opportunity is a constitutionally guaranteed right, set in motion decades of legal and legislative efforts to equalize learning among the state’s distinct and often racially isolated school districts.

    “It is with great sadness that I learned today that my predecessor, retired Chief Justice Ellen A. Peters, passed away,” Chief Justice Richard A. Robinson said. “I had the incredible honor of not only arguing before her at the Supreme Court, but to work beside her on the Appellate Court.  Chief Justice Peters was the first woman to serve in Connecticut as a justice and chief justice, and what a trailblazer she was!  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.  As such, she appointed a task force to determine the presence and extent of gender bias in Connecticut courts and to develop strategies for its eradication.  In addition, Chief Justice Peters appointed a task force on minority fairness, charging it with identifying any discriminatory treatment of racial or ethnic minorities within the Connecticut Judicial Branch.  These two reports have served as the basis for continuing progress in these two very important areas.  Both her legacy and achievements will guide generations of lawyers,  judges, and law students for many years to come.”

    Peters was appointed to the state’s high court in 1978 by then Gov. Ella T. Grasso, the nation’s first female governor. Peters was named chief justice by then Gov. William A. O’Neill in 1984.

    She was born in Berlin in 1930 and lived for a year in the Netherlands after her family fled the Nazis in 1938. After relocating to New York, she attended Swarthmore College and Yale Law School, from which she obtained a degree with honors in 1954.

    Peters became an assistant professor at the Yale Law School in 1956 after clerking for then Chief Judge Charles E. Clark on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. She was appointed a full professor in 1964.

    She retired from the Supreme Court in 2000, but remained active on the state Appellate Court.

    It was noted when she retired that Peters has written more than 600 opinions in her 18 years on the court, including her ruling in the case of McConnell vs. Beverly Enterprises Inc., involving the removal of life support from a terminal patient.

    She was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Ella T. Grasso Distinguished Service Medal, the Judiciary Award of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, the Yale Law School Distinguished Service Medal, the Connecticut Region of Hadassah Myrtle Wreath Award and the Hartford College for Women Pioneer Woman Award.

    Peters lived in West Hartford and was married to the late Phillip I. Blumberg, a professor and former dean of the University of Connecticut School of Law.

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