In Memoriam: Chief Justice Ellen Ash Peters

Her distinguished and groundbreaking career included a long and impactful connection with the UConn School of Law.

Ellen Ash Peters

Ellen Ash Peters, chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court. (Yale Law School)

Ellen Ash Peters, a trailblazing jurist who was the first woman to serve as a justice and as chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, has died at the age of 94, the Judicial Branch confirmed Wednesday. Her powerful legacy includes a profound influence on the UConn School of Law, where she was a visiting professor and long-time benefactor.

Peters was born in Berlin in 1930 and fled the Nazi regime in Germany with her family, first to Amsterdam in 1938 and then to New York in 1939. After graduating from Swarthmore College, she earned an LLB from Yale Law School in 1954. Two years later, she joined the Yale Law School faculty, focusing her scholarship on contracts and the Uniform Commercial Code. In 1978, Connecticut Gov. Ella Grasso appointed her the first woman associate justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court. Grasso’s successor, William O’Neill, appointed her chief justice in 1984.

Peters described her initial appointment to the court as almost a relief after the stress of teaching at Yale. “I was thrilled to do whatever the chief justice wanted me to do,” she told the Connecticut Law Tribune. “It wasn’t nearly as frightening as teaching at law school.”

Anne C. Dailey, who holds the Ellen Ash Peters professorship at UConn Law, said Peters’ years on the court “showed the breadth of her professional talents and personal fortitude. She was a powerful intellectual force on the court, raising the quality of its decision-making, professionalism and commitment to justice to new heights. As a children and law scholar, I have special admiration for her pathbreaking decision in Sheff v. O’Neill, which held that children have rights under the Connecticut Constitution to a substantially equal education.”

framed portrait of Chief Justice Ellen Ash Peters
Portrait of Chief Justice Ellen Ash Peters (Jack Montméat)

In 1979, within a year of a first date arranged for Grasso’s second inaugural ball, Peters married Phillip I. Blumberg, then dean of the UConn School of Law. After she transitioned to senior status in 1996, Peters taught a seminar on federalism as a visiting professor at UConn Law and served as a judge trial referee. Blumberg later established the professorship in her name. He died in 2021 at the age of 101.

“The UConn Law community is profoundly grateful for Chief Justice Peters’ immense contributions to our law school, the state of Connecticut, and the legal profession,” Dean Eboni S. Nelson said. “She opened doors of opportunity for generations of students and attorneys. Her impactful legacy will never be forgotten.”

During her distinguished career, Peters garnered innumerable awards and honors, including an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from UConn, as well as the Distinguished Service Award and the Medal of Excellence from the University of Connecticut Law School Alumni Association.

In 2019, the UConn School of Law unveiled a portrait of Peters that now hangs in the Reading Room of William F. Starr Hall, near a portrait of Blumberg. At the dedication ceremony, her son James Peters spoke of how his mother balanced a deep respect for the rule of law with an awareness of how state power can be abused.

“Mom, who has always viewed with informed suspicion state justifications for breaking down a door, knew also that education was the ultimate door opener, the best chance to transform a life in a single generation,” he said. “No one exemplifies that promise more fully than does Ellen Ash Peters.”

In lieu of flowers, those who wish to make a gift in Ellen’s memory are encouraged to do so via the “EHRE Fund” at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.