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Ellen Ash Peters, trailblazing former CT chief justice, dead at 94

Known for her landmark ruling in Sheff v. O’Neill, Ellen Ash Peters was Yale Law School’s first female faculty member and in 1984 was appointed Connecticut's first female Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court.
William B. Carter
Yale Law School
FILE, 1975: Known for her landmark ruling in Sheff v. O’Neill, Ellen Ash Peters was Yale Law School’s first female faculty member and in 1984 was appointed Connecticut's first female Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court.

Ellen Ash Peters has died at the age of 94. In 1978, she became the first woman named to the Connecticut Supreme Court. She later became Connecticut's first female chief justice.

Her death was confirmed by the state Judicial Branch Wednesday.

Peters graduated from Yale Law School, and became the first female member of the faculty.

In a speech given in 1994, Peters traced the origin of her trailblazing efforts back to a day in 1939. That’s when Peters and her mother arrived on a frigid pier in Hoboken, New Jersey. They had left Peters' father behind when they fled Nazi Germany.

"Managing our arrival in New York tested every ounce of my mother's newly-developed capacity for self-reliance," Peters said. "I recognized, and she insisted that everyone had to look after himself or herself, especially herself."

Peters also said many people helped her acclimate to live in the U.S., including teachers and other children acting as translators.

In the same 1994 gathering at which Peters discussed her background, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg praised pioneering state supreme court chief justice.

Connecticut State Supreme Court

"She gave generations of women law students cause for hope, a reason to believe they too could aspire and achieve," Ginsburg said. The event recorded by C-SPAN.

Peters wrote a landmark school desegregation decision in the Sheff vs. O'Neill case, which found that the state was responsible for addressing educational disparities for children in Hartford Public Schools.

“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.

“Chief Justice Peters achieved many firsts," Gov. Ned 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."

In a written statement, the current Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court, Richard Robinson, praised Peters as trailblazer, and a fearless legal giant. He said she recognized the importance of fairness, openness, and providing equal access to justice for all.

"Both her legacy and achievements will guide generations of lawyers, judges, and law students for many years to come," Robinson said.

Peters was a resident of West Hartford.

This story has been updated. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Matt Dwyer is an editor, reporter and midday host for Connecticut Public's news department. He produces local news during All Things Considered.

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