Connecticut State Library with state seal

Memorials of Connecticut Judges and Attorneys
As Printed in the Connecticut Reports
volume 143, page(s) 743-745


John A. Cornell, a distinguished member of the bench and bar and a retired justice of the Supreme Court of Errors, was born in Bridgeport on January 9, 1886, the son of the late John A. Cornell and Minnie Geary Cornell. Both of his parents lived in Bridgeport all their lives. His grandfather, John G. Cornell, was born in Derby and served two years in the Union Army in the Civil War. His mother's people came from Cromwell, Connecticut.

Judge Cornell's father was a good mechanic and proud of it. He helped design and build part of the engine of the old Port Jefferson ferry, and when, after years of service, it was reported to be the best engine on Long Island Sound, he was not surprised. John learned early in life that good workmanship has long rewards. But there was little money in the family, and after John finished high school in 1905, the obvious next step was to go to work. So he did, as a salesman for The Bridgeport Chain Company. Three years later, at nineteen, he was promoted to be assistant sales manager. He worked until 1912, when he had earned sufficient funds to enable him to study law at the New York University Law School, from which he was graduated in 1914, having completed the three-year course in two years. He was admitted to the Connecticut bar the same year.

In 1917 he married Alice Breyer. Except for a short period of time when he lived in Fairfield, he resided in Bridgeport until his death. He and his wife were deeply devoted to each other, and their married life was most happy and inspiring. Mrs. Cornell, during the many months of Judge Cornell's illness, gave her husband unstintedly of her time, her love and her care and assistance. They were an ideal couple.

From 1914 to 1932, Judge Cornell actively participated in the practice of law, and his experience at the bar broadened, fortified and matured his character, perspective and mind. He was regarded as a skilful and scholarly lawyer of the highest ethical standards. He soon won the reputation throughout the state of Connecticut of being exhaustive in his legal research and would labor long and incessantly, often throughout the hours of the night, to prepare a legal opinion. He never gave hasty judgments, and would make a complete and thorough research of the law before giving his opinion on any given legal problem. His legal opinions and decisions were always supported by legal precedent. While his briefs were often voluminous, it was only because his research was so complete and thorough, and he would overlook no authority which would assist the court in adopting the proposition of law which he was advocating.

After his admission to the bar, John Cornell wasted no time in adopting politics as a medium of civic service. Undoubtedly he was not blind to the truism that political activity can be useful to a young lawyer, but it would not have occurred to him to select his party affiliation on that basis. Bridgeport was then firmly entrenched as a Republican stronghold, but with him there was no compromise with loyalties and personal conviction. He joined the Democratic party and came up the hard way. No one sponsored him. With no political experience, he became the Democratic leader in Bridgeport, and through his leadership the Democratic party elected a mayor, thereby breaking the long record of victories of the strongly entrenched Republican party. He was appointed city attorney of Bridgeport, and he was soon recognized as an expert on municipal law.

On January 8, 1932. Governor Wilbur L. Cross appointed John Cornell to the Superior Court bench. His appointment was acclaimed by bench and bar. He was indorsed for the appointment by leading lawyers and jurists, since it was well known that he was pre-eminently qualified for judicial appointment to the Superior Court. His scholarly and gentlemanly attainments made him an outstanding judge. The courage of his convictions and his impartiality were reflected in the judicial decisions he rendered. He brought to the bench a wealth of experience gained by him in the practice of law. He had a keen and resourceful intellect, always prepared to cope with both complex and unusual problems. He had a deep feeling and respect for spiritual values. His love for judicial work, together with his industry, ability and knowledge of the law, gained for him the reputation of being an able and conscientious jurist.

The ethics of the practice of law meant a great deal to Judge Cornell. One of his outstanding characteristics was his intense dislike of all kinds of chicanery and dishonesty. He would quickly lose patience with evasive and dishonest witnesses. He always felt that an attorney before him should be thoroughly prepared so that the interests of the attorney's client would be fully protected and presented to the court.

He served on the Superior Court until May 12, 1953, when he was sworn in as a justice of the Supreme Court on the nomination of Governor John Lodge. Two sessions convinced him that his health could not stand the exactions of appellate work, and to the genuine regret of bench and bar alike he resigned the following September. His health declined progressively until his death on January 6, 1956, in Bridgeport.

Perhaps the best known and the most respected of his judicial opinions is one that had the force of law for less than two months. His forty-five page decision in Osborn v. Zoning Board of Appeals, 11 Conn. Sup. 489, had, with rare courage and logic, attacked the constitutional warrant for the powers and indeed for the very existence of the Court of Common Pleas. His conclusion was overruled by the Supreme Court in Walkinshaw v. O'Brien, 130 Conn. 122, but by a divided court, and only after great deference was given to the thorough research and careful reasoning of Judge Cornell in the Osborn case. The Osborn opinion is more than a profound historical document - it is a worthy monument to the kind of judge who must call the turn as he sees it, for good or ill, with independence and integrity.

Any fair appraisal of Judge Cornell's life and accomplishment must be made in the light of the tremendous physical handicaps with which he had to contend during most of his life. He was always physically frail. When barely out of law school he believed that he had incipient tuberculosis. and when he was advised that riding and the care of his own animal would help to arrest such a tendency, he painstakingly followed the advice. He liked riding horseback about the countryside whenever he could find the time, and warmed to the companionships which are always born of a common interest. Far more serious and more difficult to control was a diabetic condition of long standing, which limited to a considerable extent his social and other activities. Acute attacks of this malady interrupted his work with increasing frequency and took a severe toll of his strength and vitality. Cataracts in both eyes were ultimately relieved by surgery, but only after years of gallant struggle against all the vicissitudes of failing sight. Achievement far less than his, in the face of so painful a succession of misfortunes, would command admiration and respect.

That he sometimes appeared sensitive to criticism was perhaps partly due to a reluctance to exploit his physical condition in his own defense. But it is better explained by his own high standards of personal loyalty. Always within the limits of strict judicial propriety, there seemed no service too menial and none too exacting for the calls of friendship. His quiet courtesy to any member of the bar was a byword, but woe to him who abused it. His devotion to a trusted friend seemed immune to misunderstanding.

Judge Cornell gained a wide reputation as a scholarly recluse. More accurately, he was a thorough and painstaking student of the law who, by sheer industry, was able largely to compensate for bad health. This left little time for social activities, even if his strength or inclinations had permitted them. He was a man who possessed both humility and courage; and while always displaying a serious exterior, he had a great sense of humor which showed itself in the quiet company of a few friends. He was never ostentatious in his habits and was sympathetic and warmhearted whenever a friend was in need. His life was active, colorful, complete and full of meaning.

The religious duties of a Roman Catholic, the routine of a modest household, his horses, the development of the charming summer home he had acquired on the Maine coast, the companionship of a devoted wife and a few close friends, these and his chosen profession filled his days with quiet happiness and his years with honorable accomplishment.