Yale Law School Mourns the Death of Trailblazing Professor Ellen Ash Peters ’54

Photo of Ellen Ash Peters ’54
Ellen Ash Peters ’54, the Law School’s first female faculty member and the Connecticut Supreme Court’s first female appointee and Chief Justice, passed away on April 16, 2024.

Chief Justice Ellen Ash Peters ’54, the pioneering lawyer, professor, and jurist, died on April 17 at the age of 94.

Peters was the Law School’s first female faculty member and the Connecticut Supreme Court’s first female appointee and Chief Justice.

“Chief Justice Peters was not simply a trailblazer in the law, but a treasured member of the Yale Law School community, whose brilliance, humor, and warmth we will deeply miss,” said Dean and Sol & Lillian Goldman Professor of Law Heather K. Gerken. “As Yale’s first female Dean, I am forever grateful to her for smoothing the path for the many women who followed in her footsteps.”

Ellen Ash Peters was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1930. Fearing the Nazi Party’s rule, her family fled to the Netherlands when Peters was 8 years old and immigrated to New York City the following year. She attended Hunter College High School in New York and, in 1951, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Swarthmore College.

Ellen Ash Peters teaching in a Law School classroom
Ellen Ash Peters teaching at the Law School.

In 1954, Peters received her LL.B. from Yale Law School, and after clerking for Chief Judge Charles E. Clark of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, returned to the Law School as its first female faculty member at the age of 26. 

“I think a fair number of my colleagues expected me to teach for a few years and then disappear and have babies. I’m not sure when I knew that was nonsense,” Peters told the Hartford Courant in 1978.

At the Law School, Peters taught contracts and commercial law. She was the first woman to gain full professorship in 1964 and was named Southmayd Professor of Law in 1975. She held that position until 1978, when Connecticut Gov. Ella T. Grasso appointed her to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

Peters continued to teach at Yale Law as an adjunct professor until she was appointed Chief Justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1984 by Gov. William A. O’Neill, a role she retained until 1996, when she took senior status. 

As Chief Justice, Peters famously ruled to uphold equal educational opportunities for Hartford children in the case of Sheff v. O’Neill

“The public elementary and high school students in Hartford suffer daily from the devastating effects that racial and ethnic isolation, as well as poverty, have had on their education. Federal constitutional law provides no remedy for their plight,” Peters wrote in her decision. “The principal issue in this appeal is whether, under the unique provisions of our state constitution, the state, which already plays an active role in managing public schools, must take further measures to relieve the severe handicaps that burden these children's education.”

The landmark decision resulted in the establishment of nearly 40 interdistrict magnet schools and an Open Choice program that allows Hartford students to attend suburban schools.

Peters left the court upon mandatory retirement in 2000, although she continued to serve as a judge trial referee on the Connecticut Appellate Court until 2014. During her 18 years on the Supreme Court, she authored more than 600 opinions. 

portrait of Ellen Ash Peters
A portrait of Chief Justice Ellen Ash Peters ’54 by artist Rudolph Zallinger hangs in Room 127 at the Law School.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said of Peters, “She gave generations of women law students cause for hope [and] a reason to believe that they, too, could aspire and achieve.”

Over the course of her career, she earned many accolades and honors, including the Yale Law School Association’s Award of Merit in 1983 and an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Yale in 1985. She was the first recipient of the Ella T. Grasso Distinguished Service Medal and received the Connecticut Trial Lawyers’ Association Judiciary Award, the Connecticut Region of Hadassah Myrtle Wreath Award, the Hartford College for Women Pioneer Woman Award, and the National Center for State Courts’ Warren E. Burger Award. 

She received honorary degrees from Yale University, the University of Connecticut, Swarthmore College, the University of Hartford, Georgetown University, New York Law School, Connecticut College, Bates College, Trinity College, Wesleyan University, and the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. On March 18, 2015 — Peters’ birthday — Gov. Dannel Malloy named March 21, 2015, “Ellen Ash Peters Day” in the state of Connecticut. 

Peters will be remembered as an immensely gifted jurist and a great teacher and mentor. She was beloved by her students, including former Dean Anthony Kronman ’75, who noted that he was often “overwhelmed by her brilliance, and encouraged by her warmth… I immensely admired Professor Peters as a student and do so to this day.”

Peters is survived by her three children.

Statement from the Governor of Connecticut

The New York Times: Ellen Ash Peters, Pioneer on the Connecticut Bench, Dies at 94

ALI: In Memoriam: Ellen Ash Peters