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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.”

In 1979, the National Women’s Political Caucus named Justice Peters as one of eight women it would support for a potential U.S. Supreme Court vacancy.

In her 18 years on the court, Justice Peters wrote more than 600 opinions.

While she was chief justice, the court upheld a state ban on assault weapons and, in 1994, Connecticut’s death penalty. (State lawmakers went on to abolish capital punishment in 2012.)

Her most consequential decision was a ruling in 1996 that de facto segregation in Hartford’s public schools violated the state constitution. The court mandated the General Assembly to fix the disparity between largely white suburban schools and urban schools that were almost entirely Black and Hispanic.

In a decision written by Justice Peters, the court concluded that “extreme racial and ethnic isolation” in Hartford public schools “deprives schoolchildren of a substantially equal educational opportunity and requires the state to take further remedial measures.”

“Every passing day shortchanges these children in their ability to contribute to their own well-being and to that of this state and nation,” she wrote.

The case, Sheff v. O’Neill, was part of a decades-long national debate, still unresolved, over how to address the gap in academic achievement between white and nonwhite students. The Connecticut court found that the main cause of school segregation was the drawing of school districts along town boundaries, which spurred middle-class families, mostly white, to move to suburbia, while leaving poor minority families behind in the city.

With court-ordered busing between school districts off the table by the 1990s, Connecticut lawmakers funded magnet schools and other school-choice options to attract students from both the suburbs and Hartford.

“Her majority opinion in the Sheff v. O’Neill case paved the way for greater equity and opportunity in our state’s public schools,” Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz said in a statement.

Ellen Asch (the spelling of the surname was later Americanized) was born on March 21, 1930, in Berlin, the younger daughter of Ernst and Hilde (Simon) Asch. Her mother was an amateur violinist.

Ernst Asch was Jewish, and Hilde Simon was from a family that had converted from Judaism to Protestantism two generations earlier. In August 1938, the couple were detained overnight by the police in Berlin. After their release, they fled the country two weeks before Kristallnacht. After a year in Amsterdam, Ellen, her mother and her older sister, Renate, made it to New York City in late 1939. Mr. Asch arrived the next year.

Ellen attended Hunter High School in Manhattan and Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where she met Robert Peters, who would become a psychiatrist. They married in 1951 and raised four children before divorcing in 1976.

In 1979, Justice Peters married Phillip I. Blumberg, the dean of the University of Connecticut School of Law, whom she had met on a blind date at Governor Grasso’s inaugural ball. Mr. Blumberg died in 2021.

In addition to her son James, she is survived by another son, David; a daughter, Julie Dreisch; four stepchildren, William, Peter, Lisa and Bruce Blumberg; nine grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.

In 1994, at a dinner to honor Justice Peters, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that Justice Peters “gave generations of women law students cause for hope, a reason to believe that they, too, could aspire and achieve.”

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