Ellen Bree Burns, Barrier-Breaking Connecticut Judge, Dies at 95


“I knew I did not want to teach,” she told The Connecticut Post, based in Bridgeport, when she retired from the bench in 2015. “I wanted to be an actress or a lawyer.”

“But,” she added, “no matter how astute an actor, you have to have good looks. I was more confident with law.”

Judge Burns’s husband, Joseph P. Burns, a television news broadcaster who later worked for charitable organizations, died in 1982.

In addition to her son Joseph, Judge Burns, who lived in Hamden, is survived by another son, Kevin; a daughter, Sister Mary Ellen Burns, a Roman Catholic nun; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. All three of her children are lawyers.

After law school, Ms. Burns did legislative legal work for the Connecticut General Assembly for almost 25 years. From 1973 to 1976 she served as a judge in two lower courts that no longer exist in the state, Circuit Court and the Court of Common Pleas.

In 1976, Gov. Ella T. Grasso, the first woman to be elected governor in her own right in the United States, appointed Judge Burns to the Superior Court, the state’s primary criminal and civil trial court. She was the first woman to sit on that court. Today, a third of the more than 170 state judges in Connecticut are women, as are four of the 14 judges on the federal bench there, according to the courts’ websites.

On the federal bench, Judge Burns was the chief judge in the state from 1988 through 1992.

While she could be stern with defendants like Mr. Frankel, Judge Burns could also mete out measures of kindness and hope in sentencing wrongdoers, Edward J. Gavin, a lawyer who had represented clients before her, told The Connecticut Post.

“For them it was like standing before your grandmother and being told you’re not a bad person, you did something wrong, you have to be punished and you will get over it,” he said. “Sometimes I’d look over at my client and see them nodding in agreement.”

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