Former Connecticut Chief Justice Robert J. Callahan brought a gentlemanly approach to the Supreme Court, but a strict adherence to the law in deciding cases.

Callahan died New Year’s Day at Norwalk Hospital, in the company of his wife, Dorothy, and eight children. He was 82, and had suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

“This is truly a sad day for the judiciary in Connecticut,” Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers said in a statement. “We have lost one of the greatest judges this state has ever had. The entire Judicial Branch mourns former Chief Justice Callahan’s passing.”

Rogers described Callahan as “a hard-working, diligent judge” who treated the people who appeared before him with respect. “What mattered most to him is that the case was important to the parties,” Rogers said. “Justice Callahan was a consummate gentleman who was patient and a good listener. He was truly beloved by everyone with whom he worked and many people sought him out for his counsel and wisdom. It is worth noting that he had a wonderful sense of humor and an unsurpassed ability of helping to put things into perspective.”

Callahan had a colorful start. The son of a plumber, he grew up in Norwalk and became a football standout first in high school and then from 1949 to 1952 at Boston College, where played defensive end. While in college, Callahan earned extra money as a part-time police officer walking a beat in his hometown. Years later, he acknowledged that the perspective helped give him credibility in the courts system.

He tried out for the Chicago Bears of the National Football League before turning his attention to the law.

Callahan earned his law degree at Fordham University Law School in 1955, and then served in the Army. Upon returning home, Callahan worked as a prosecutor for the Norwalk City Court for two years and then a prosecutor for the Circuit Court from 1965 to 1968.

He was named a judge of the Circuit Court in 1970 and elevated to Superior Court in 1976. He was nominated by Gov. William A. O’Neill to the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1985. He served until 1999, the last three years as chief justice.

Initiatives And Mergers

His accomplishments in that role included the 1998 creation of the Commission on Public Trust and Confidence, which was launched by the Judicial Branch to improve overall trust and confidence levels and service to the citizens of Connecticut.

Under Callahan’s watch, new initiatives included the creation of a statewide outreach program in which lawyers and bar associations were asked to suggest court system improvements; expansion of court interpreter services; and development of court information desks and court service centers. As chief justice, Callahan oversaw a merger of the Bail Commission, Office of Adult Probation, Juvenile Probation, Division of Juvenile Detention, Family Services Division and Office of Alternative Sanctions into a single Court Support Services Division.

His tenure as chief justice was also distinguished by important and divisive cases. Among them was the 4-3 decision in Sheff v. O’Neill, in which a bare majority, composed of former Chief Justice Ellen A. Peters and Justices Joette Katz, Flemming L. Norcott Jr. and Robert I. Berdon held in 1996 that Connecticut’s constitutional guarantees mandating free public education and forbidding discrimination combined to require affirmative state efforts to ensure racial integration in public schools.

For Callahan, who dissented along with David M. Borden and Richard N. Palmer, the majority went too far. “I felt it was social engineering,” Callahan said in an interview after his retirement.

Another case in which the Callahan Court entered encountered a hot-button social issue was 1999′s In re Baby Z. A majority of six justices, led by Callahan, found that a same-sex partner could not adopt her partner’s biological child. In that case, Callahan’s majority found that the statutes didn’t allow such adoptions. The law was changed by the legislature within six months.

But even when other judges and lawyers didn’t agree with Callahan’s position, they respected his approach. Callahan’s career path leading up to his time on the court distinguished him from his peers, some of whom came from more academic backgrounds.

One of them was Callahan’s predecessor, Peters, who left a teaching career at Yale to become the first woman appointed to the state Supreme Court. Several years ago, Peters described Callahan’s greatest attribute as being his ability to understand the work of legal practitioners.

“I get the impression that trial judges have great comfort in his leadership, with understanding their problems and relating to them because, of course, much more than in my case, he’s done it all,” Peters told the Law Tribune in 1999. “He was there in the trenches and he knows what it’s like when three administrative appeals suddenly get dumped in somebody’s lap.”

Kathy Calibey, co-chair of Connecticut Bar Association’s Appellate Advocacy Section, agreed that Callahan was popular with members of the bar. “Justice Callahan was a thoughtful and compassionate jurist. He was fair and respectful to those who appeared before him even when challenging their positions,” said Calibey, a trial lawyer with RisCassi & Davis. “He will be remembered for his warmth, humility and sense of humor.”

A Muscular Scholar

James F. Sullivan, a partner in the civil trial practice of Howard, Kohn, Sprague & Fitzgerald in Hartford, clerked with Justice Callahan from 1992 to 1993. He is friends with Callahan’s son, Kerry, who is a principal with Updike, Kelly & Spellacy in Hartford.

Sullivan keeps a black and white photo of himself with Justice Callahan, which he said is a memento of the experience that helped shape him into the lawyer that he is today. “That picture shows that Justice Callahan was not only an incredibly large and muscular guy,” said Sullivan, “but he was also a scholar. In the picture, he’s got his glasses on, and he in the process of working on an opinion.”

Most of all from those days, Sullivan recalls that Callahan was a hard worker. “He wrote each opinion out longhand on a yellow pad,” Sullivan said. “He thought and analyzed the issues in his head and then wrote them out concisely and gracefully, agonizing over proper word selection. He made me a better writer as a result.”

Another impression that Callahan left on Sullivan, was his adherence to the law. While “his overall approach to cases was conservative, he decided cases on the facts and the law,” he said. “Even if the outcome did not seem just or fair. He did not like to make law or do the work of the legislature. He was faithful to precedent and the language of statutes.”