Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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Newell Jennings' contemporaries at the bar will remember him as a friendly man and a learned and courageous judge. Lawyers who did not have the great privilege of knowing him and working with him will read his opinions in volumes 123 to 139 of the Connecticut Reports and find them to be the work of an expert judicial craftsman.
Judge Jennings was born in Bristol on May 12, 1883, and lived there until his death on February 17, 1965. He was the son of John J. and Elizabeth Newell Jennings. His early education was in the public common and high schools in Bristol, interrupted by two years of study abroad, one in Hanover, Germany, and one in Paris, France. He was graduated from Yale in 1904, Phi Beta Kappa, and from the Yale Law School in 1907, cum laude.
Immediately following his admission to the Connecticut bar in 1907, he returned to Bristol and engaged in the general practice of law with his uncle, Roger S. Newell, and with William J. Malone. He saw service as assistant prosecuting attorney in the Bristol City Court and also as an assistant corporation counsel. In 1917, he was named assistant state's attorney for Hartford County where he served under the late Hugh M. Alcorn, one of the most vigorous and able state's attorney's in the history of our courts. He always acknowledged his great debt for the professional training he received from Mr. Alcorn.
Judge Jennings was appointed to the Superior Court on May 4, 1921, to take effect August 30, 1922, but his elevation to the bench was advanced by Governor Everett J. Lake on May 1, 1922, in order to fill the vacancy caused by the appointment of Justice John E. Keeler to the Supreme Court. In 1925, Judge Jennings presided at the trial of Gerald Chapman in the Superior Court in Hartford County. This case was one of the most famous in the annals of the Connecticut courts. Chapman had been a notorious desperado and escape artist. The interest in his trial in Connecticut was nationwide. Throughout the trial, rumors circulated that Chapman's underworld friends planned reprisals against the prosecution and court officials. Although Judge Jennings received a large number of threatening letters, he presided throughout the long and hotly contested trial with quiet and courageous dignity. After a verdict of guilty, he pronounced the death sentence on Chapman, who later was hanged.
As a trial judge, Judge Jennings was highly regarded by the members of the bar and the litigants who appeared before him. Whatever the outcome, both felt that they had had "their day in court." With Judge Jennings on the bench, a trial proceeded expeditiously. He could be stern but he was always fair and considerate. He had an innate ability for disposing of the court's business speedily but not hastily. His rulings and judgments were seldom reversed on appeal. When a great flood of cases involving automobile accidents first threatened to bog down the trial court, he developed a happy faculty for securing the cooperation of counsel in settling the cases pending before him to the satisfaction of the parties, thereby avoiding many lengthy trials. He once wrote of himself that as a trial judge his career was unspectacular but that he carried his share of the load and approximated the ideal of Judge Marcus H. Holcomb to have all litigated matters decided, even if not written out, the Tuesday following the week of trial or argument.
To the bar and his associates on the bench, Judge Jennings was affectionately known as the "iron man." "I'm not the nervous type," he once jokingly said. Lawyers still recount the day that Judge Jennings sentenced a hardened criminal to twenty-five years in prison. "Your Honor," the prisoner pleaded, `if you knew of my condition, you wouldn't be so severe. I have heart trouble, high blood pressure, arthritis, sugar diabetes and rheumatism. I'm a sick man, your Honor. I couldn't possibly serve twenty-five years." Judge Jennings, looking down on the prisoner with a sympathetic nod, said "Well, do your best, son, do your best." He had a broad understanding of human nature and could discern quickly what was false, hypercritical or insincere. His rulings during a trial, his announcements of a judgment from the bench or his pronouncements of sentence in criminal cases were never accompanied by a discussion which might appear to be an attempt to justify them. There was a simple, concise statement of his decision and no more. It was the general consensus of the bar that Judge Jennings was one of the very best of our trial judges of all time.
On February 4, 1937, Judge Jennings was appointed as associate justice of the Supreme Court of Errors to take effect upon the retirement of the Honorable John W. Banks on September 22, 1937. His broad learning, keen mind and constant industry are manifest in the many excellent opinions which he produced. As an appellate judge he was a patient listener, but his mind came quickly to the vitals of a case, and he could, during argument, ask the most searching and helpful questions. He worked diligently on the cases assigned to him for opinion writing. Often he would circulate two opinions while his colleagues on the court were ready with only one. His comments on the opinions circulated by his associates were always constructive and showed that he had made as thorough a study of both the law and the facts as did the author of the opinion upon which he was commenting. Judge Jennings abhorred long opinions. He strove successfully to state his reasoning in concise and simple language. He was retired by constitutional limitation on his seventieth birthday, May 12, 1953. He laid down his work as a judge with regret, although he never said so because he was not a man who displayed emotion. He had enjoyed thoroughly every minute of his tenure as both a trial and an appellate judge.
Judge Jennings was a vigorous, active man. Although he may not have appeared to be, nevertheless, he was always busy. In his early days at the bar and on the bench, he was intensely interested in education. Before the consolidation of the schools in Bristol, he was chairman of the first school district. He served as superintendent of schools from 1908 to 1913 and thereafter, for many years, as chairman of the board of education. He was a member of the executive board of the Bristol Boy Scout Council and was the recipient of the Silver Beaver Award, the highest adult honor in scouting. He was a charter member of the Bristol's Girl's Club. He was chairman of the Bristol Republican Town Committee from 1909 to 1922. He served at one time as the secretary of the Bristol Hospital. He was also a director and vice-president of the Bristol Savings Bank. After his retirement, he was made chairman of the Bristol Civic Development Committee.
As a judge, Newell Jenning's special interest was in procedure. He was, for many years, a member and later chairman of the important Rules Committee. He assisted Chief Justice William M. Maltbie, as cochairman of the original personnel (now the executive) committee of the judges and was influential in setting up its procedure. He was called upon to assist in special surveys of the judicial department. The first was a survey of criminal procedure for Governor John H. Trumbull; the second, a survey of judicial expenditures during the depression years, for Governor Wilber L. Cross. Later, he was appointed, by Governor Raymond E. Baldwin, chairman of a commission for the study of the minor courts, and still later, he was appointed, by the State Bar Association, chairman of a commission to study court integration. The recommendations of these commissions were, for the most part, implemented by legislation, executive order or rule of court. In the long years of his tenure as judge, no one contributed more than Judge Jennings to the improvement of our judicial procedures. He was most active on the committee which produced the Practice Book of 1951, wherein are contained more rules improving our procedures than were ever before put into operation at one time.
Judge Jennings was married on June 28, 1910, to Rachel K. Peck. On June 28, 1960, a host of friends gathered to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Mrs. Jennings survives him along with two of their three children and seven grandchildren.
Newell Jennings was a man of strong, positive character. His emotions were always under control. They never affected his judgment. He had a high sense of public duty, and his great public service to community and state was rendered without expectation of praise or hope of reward. To his family, he was a loving and thoughtful husband and father. To the people of his city, he was a wise counselor and ever ready worker for the community's welfare. To the members of the bar, he was the ideal judge. To his associates on the court, he was always a genial, interesting companion, an able and willing helper and a treasured friend.