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Ellen Bree Burns, pioneering federal judge, dies at 95

June 4, 2019
In this March 19, 2015 photo, U.S. District Judge Ellen Bree Burns poses for a portrait in her courtroom in the federal courthouse in New Haven, Conn. Burns who retired in 2015, was the first woman to serve on the federal bench in Connecticut. She died after a brief illness on Monday, June 3, 2019, at a hospital in New Haven. She was 95. (Christian Abraham/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP)
In this March 19, 2015 photo, U.S. District Judge Ellen Bree Burns poses for a portrait in her courtroom in the federal courthouse in New Haven, Conn. Burns who retired in 2015, was the first woman to serve on the federal bench in Connecticut. She died after a brief illness on Monday, June 3, 2019, at a hospital in New Haven. She was 95. (Christian Abraham/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP)

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Retired U.S. District Judge Ellen Bree Burns, the first woman to serve on the federal bench in Connecticut who was widely admired as a pioneer and role model, has died. She was 95.

Burns died Monday afternoon at a hospital in New Haven after a brief illness, said her son, Hartford attorney Joseph Burns.

“We are sad to have lost our mother, but we are very happy that she is in a better place now,” he said, noting that Burns was a devout Catholic. “She lived a long and very happy and a very successful life, certainly as a judge and as a mother and grandmother. She was ready for her reward.”

Burns was one of the first female Connecticut state judges and the first woman to serve on the state Superior Court bench, after having worked as an attorney for the legislature for 24 years.

President Jimmy Carter nominated her for a federal judgeship in Connecticut in 1978, and she was confirmed by the Senate. She served nearly four decades on the federal bench, including as chief judge of the federal courts in Connecticut, until her retirement in 2015 at age 91.

Mobsters, Hells Angels and drug dealers were among the people she sent to prison.

“Most of my cases now were drug cases,” Burns told the Connecticut Post shortly before her retirement. “Things haven’t gotten better since the war on drugs began. It’s awful, all the destruction this causes to families, neighborhoods and cities. I look at the families of the defendants and just wonder how awful it is for them.”

In 1986, she sent leaders of the Hells Angels to prison as part of a nationwide crackdown on drug dealing that snared more than 30 members of the motorcycle gang’s Bridgeport chapter.

Burns also presided over the case of Greenwich financier Martin Frankel, whom she sent to prison for more than 16 years for cheating insurance companies out of $200 million to pay for a luxurious lifestyle that included fancy cars, diamonds and several girlfriends.

She also was on the bench for cases connected to the late 1990s state pension fund scandal that sent Connecticut Treasurer Paul Silvester to prison. In 2005, she sentenced former state NAACP leader Ben Andrews to more than two years in prison for helping steer hundreds of millions in state pension fund investments.

U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill, chief judge for the Connecticut federal courts, said Burns was a highly respected jurist, both for breaking barriers as a woman and for being fair in the courtroom.

“She was just a trailblazer,” Underhill said Tuesday. “She was the model for so many judges in terms of demeanor. She set an example for women that I think still is highly regarded. I find inspiration in her example every day.”

A wake is scheduled from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Beecher & Bennett Funeral Home in Hamden. A funeral Mass is set for 10 a.m. Saturday at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Hamden.

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This story corrects the hours of the wake for Judge Ellen Bree Burns to 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, not 3 to 8 p.m. Friday.

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