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

Ellen Bree Burns, a prominent judge who was the first woman to serve on Connecticut’s major trial court and the first woman to preside in a federal court in the state, died on Monday in New Haven. She was 95 and had continued on the bench until she was 91.

Her son Joseph Burns confirmed the death, at a hospital.

For four decades Judge Burns presided in high-profile cases involving, among other things, financial fraud, government corruption, and discrimination against minorities and people with AIDS.

One of her major cases, in the United States District Court in New Haven, was that of Martin R. Frankel, an eccentric financier who had led a scheme that looted more than $200 million from premiums paid to insurance companies that he created or controlled in the 1990s.

He used the money to finance a lavish lifestyle. When the scheme began unraveling, he eluded the F.B.I. during a widely publicized four-month international manhunt in 1999 that ended with his arrest in Germany.

Pleading guilty before Judge Burns to racketeering and fraud charges, Mr. Frankel agreed to help the authorities retrieve as much of the stolen money as possible for his victims and to aid in the prosecution of his 15 accomplices.

Judge Burns, taking into account the assistance he had provided, sentenced him to nearly 17 years in prison.

But Mr. Frankel sought a bigger break. He was mentally ill, he told the judge — even though mental health experts had testified that despite signs of mental disorder, he knew right from wrong. He also maintained that he had been motivated in part by his love for a co-conspirator and his desire to have enough money to protect her two daughters from harm by an abusive ex-husband.

“So you stole $209 million in order to take care of the children?” the judge asked tartly. Mr. Frankel replied, “No, can I explain it to you?”

“I’m begging you to explain it to me,” Judge Burns said.

Mr. Frankel acknowledged that he had had to continue stealing and providing fake financial statements about where the money was going to keep his earlier thefts from being discovered.

President Jimmy Carter nominated Judge Burns to the federal bench in 1978. One of her first cases in district court was an existing lawsuit in which civil rights advocates and parents of minority children contended that the public schools in Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city, were racially segregated and had failed to provide equality of education.

The plaintiffs and the city reached an initial accord in which Bridgeport admitted that its “various acts and omissions” over the years had been a major cause of the segregation. The two sides ultimately negotiated an agreement that included a revised busing program, plans for magnet schools and recruitment of minority teachers.

In another discrimination case, in 1992, Judge Burns halted attempts by the town of Fairfield to block a charity from establishing long-term housing in a residential area for a group of homeless people with AIDS and their families.

The sponsor, the Stuart B. McKinney Foundation, named for a Republican congressman from Connecticut who had died from complications of AIDS in 1987, had bought a large house in the town for the families to live in. But the plan aroused rancorous neighborhood opposition.

In her ruling, Judge Burns agreed that “the H.I.V. status of the future tenants was a motivating factor” in the town’s attempts to block the project. She cleared the way for the house to open.

Ellen Bree was born in New Haven on Dec. 13, 1923, to Vincent and Mildred Bree, and grew up in nearby Hamden, Conn. Her father worked in the insurance industry, and her mother was a homemaker.

She graduated summa cum laude from Albertus Magnus College in New Haven in 1944 and, in 1947, from Yale University Law School, where she had been one of a handful of female students.

“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. Gov. Thomas J. Meskill Jr. appointed her to the Circuit Court in 1973, making her the first female state judge in Connecticut, and elevated her to the Court of Common Pleas the next year.

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.”

Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.

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