Connecticut State Library with state seal

Memorials of Connecticut Judges and Attorneys
As Printed in the Connecticut Reports
volume 148, page(s) 740-746


When a person in high public position reaches great stature in his career, we tend to chronicle and extol his accomplishments at the expense of the personal qualities which so often give the true picture of the man. Devotion to duty, prodigious energy, keen intellect, and exceptional capacity are molded into an image of public service. It may be a true and inspiring image, like a great statue, but like the statue, it fails to impart the warmth and human quality so essential to the fullness of a distinguished personality. No understanding of the man who held the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Errors for a longer period than any other in the history of Connecticut is complete unless, along with his public achievements, we emphasize his natural and easy friendliness, which made every personal contact a delight.

William Mills Maltbie was country born, in the then small town of Granby, Connecticut, on March 10, 1880. Descended from a long New England ancestry, he was the only son of Theodore Mills and Louise A. Jewett Maltbie. His early environment, which permitted a boyhood uncomplicated by the distractions of urban life, taught him, at first hand, the basic values of wholesome living. The country gave him a love of fields, woods and streams which sustained him in tranquility throughout his busy life. He never became too occupied to digress excitedly about the partridge or fox surprised on one of his many walks or while riding his horse through the woods. He was always ready to talk enthusiastically of the growing things in nature as objects inspiring and fascinating to a devout and active mind.

From the grade school, he entered Hartford Public High School and was graduated in 1897. He thereupon entered Yale and, in 1901, received the A.B. degree, graduating second in his class. He went on to Yale Law School and received the LL.B. degree summa cum laude in 1905.

The interlude of university life did not loosen the devotion to his native Granby and, although upon his admission to the Connecticut bar in 1905 he entered his father's Hartford office to practice law, he maintained a Granby residence which was to continue without interruption until his death on December 15, 1961, at the age of eighty-one. The early years of his law practice found him driving a horse from his Granby home to the railroad station in Tariffville to commute by train to his Hartford office, but to a lover of country living the trip was worth the effort involved. Perhaps as an omen of the activity to come, this fledgling lawyer, in 1908, had already prepared an index digest of the Connecticut Reports covering volumes 64 to 81.

A life of public service began in 1913 with the election to the General Assembly as representative from Granby. During that session, he served as chairman of both the Joint and House Committees on Constitutional Amendments.

In 1914, there ripened a friendship which was to span, in its entirety, a half century. In that year William Maltbie was appointed assistant state's attorney for Hartford County under the late Hugh Mead Alcorn, and he held that position until he was appointed a judge of the Superior Court in 1917. Mr. Alcorn, who had been appointed state's attorney in 1908, continued in that office until 1942, and the official contacts of the two men were necessarily frequent. The deeply personal friendship between them far transcended official contacts, however, and beginning early, grew constantly stronger as the years passed. It stemmed from respect, admiration and genuine affection on the part of each man for the other. And it gave the writer the cherished opportunity of knowing Judge Maltbie first as a person, unadorned with the honors which were to come, and of finding in him one who could share a boy's interests, not condescendingly in the way of some adults, but sincerely and in man-to-man fashion.

While still fulfilling the duties of assistant state's attorney, the future chief justice was, in 1915, appointed executive secretary to Governor Marcus H. Holcomb, and he held that position until 1917. At the same time he served, from 1916, as a member of the grievance committee of the Hartford County Bar. As though his seemingly unlimited capacity for the responsibility and effort could not be overtaxed, he also undertook, from 1915 to 1917, the duties of secretary to the commission then engaged in the preparation of the 1918 revision of the General Statues.

In 1917, the judicial career which was to make the name Maltbie known far beyond the boundaries of Connecticut began. On August 1, Governor Holcomb appointed him a judge of the Superior Court, effective August 31, 1917. This was not the only noteworthy event of that year for the young jurist, for in the same year he married Mary L. Hamlin. The strong, deeply loyal and solicitous relationship which existed between him and Mrs. Maltbie until his death was a large and highly rewarding facet of his life. With that rare devotion which is truly selfless, Mrs. Maltbie offered him a home life which was pleasant, quiet, understanding and solid. She shared his interest in his garden, in nature, and in his many outside activities. His contentment and well-being were her first concern. His devotion to her was touching. Those who saw their activity and home life together sensed how completely it nourished the character that so brilliantly serve our state. They were devoted not only to one another but also to their only son, Theodore Mills Maltbie, who returned that devotion in full measure. Ted, as his parents affectionately called him, is a Hartford lawyer, living in West Hartford with his wife and two children.

The appointment to the Superior Court seemed to act as a valve to release the volatile energy in the brilliant mind and rugged physique of the future chief justice. Lean and lithe in figure, his physical appearance gave slight hint of the strength which carried him through almost thirty-nine full years of judicial service with scarce an absence due to illness. That record appears the more remarkable when the myriad activities in which he engaged are considered.

Close upon his appointment to the Superior Court, he served as a member of the committee of judges which compiled the Practice Book of 1922. In 1924, he collaborated with Henry H. Townshend in supplementing his earlier index digest to carry it through volume 97 of the Connecticut Reports. He had a consuming interest not only in correct interpretation of the substance of the law but also in the perfection of the rules of procedure by which the substantive result might be justly reached. The work upon the 1922 Practice Book was the beginning of a lifelong study, publicly evidenced by his subsequent participation in both the 1934 and the 1951 revisions. Indeed, a lengthy memorandum of suggested improvements followed the 1951 revision and is, even now, aiding those engaged in the preparation of still another revision at present in the making.

Judge Maltbie continued as a Superior Court judge until 1925 when, on January 29 of that year, he became a justice of the Supreme Court of Errors. Slightly less than six years later he became, on December 1, 1930, chief justice, the position which he continued to hold until his retirement, by reason of the constitutional limitation as to age, on March 10, 1950. He was, at the age of fifty, the youngest man to become chief justice in the history of the state.

During his more than twenty-five years as a member of the Supreme Court of Errors, he took part in 3685 decisions, 824 of which he wrote the majority opinion. He was not a dissenter if it could be avoided, for the record reveals that he disagreed with the majority only fifty-six times, out of which he found it necessary to record his written dissent only thirty-three times. Concerning this record, his longtime friend and associate on the court, former Chief Justice Allyn L. Brown, has this to say: "He never compromised his convictions, or hesitated to keep sharply defined the difference between right and wrong... Not only did he assign to himself the most difficult opinions which were to be written but, by his logical and persuasive comments on the opinions prepared by the other judges, very often obviated the danger of dissenting opinions and helped preserve the symmetrical development of the common law of Connecticut."

One of Chief Justice Maltbie's most outstanding characteristics was his constant willingness to impart to his associates anything which his deep insight in the law suggested as an aid to clear and orderly judicial decision. His collection of material on jury charges has been for many years, and still is, the authoritative guide for trial judges. His compilation of Supreme Court rescripts is in daily use by the judges of that court. He set down his "Thoughts on the Writing of Opinions" in part as follows: "The most important function of a court of last resort is to formulate the principles of the common law so that, in a changing and ever more complex world, there may be preserved a balance of rights as nearly just as may be and men may know with some degree of certainty how to determine their conduct so as not to subject themselves to loss or penalty. Courts might conceivably perform this function, as the Legislature passes laws, by a categorical statement that in the situation before it a certain principle of law is to be applied. The strength and vitality of the common law lies, however, not so much in the validity and justice of the principle of law it applies as in the manner in which those principles are ascertained. ... No matter how able, honest and industrious a court may be, its opinions will not in the long run be held in high regard unless they demonstrate that it solves the problems before it by the methods which time and the stability of law and rights in the Anglo-Saxon world have proven to be essentially correct. To make this manifest is perhaps the greatest purpose of judicial decision."

This is not the place to examine how admirably the Chief Justice followed these principles in the extensive contribution which he has made to the growth of the law in Connecticut. Concerning the unwritten law of this state he wrote, in Swentusky v. Prudential Ins. Co., 116 Conn. 526, 531: "That law can never be static, but it must be everlastingly developing to meet the changing needs of a changing civilization. But if our system of law is to have stability and a measurable degree of certainty, its development must be an orderly process, an accretion to the body of principles which are the outgrowth of past precedents, reasoned out in pursuance of that method of thinking which is the essence of the common law." How ably he served that task and how great he became in judicial stature as a result are attested by the many published commendations of his work which have appeared over the years and by the degrees recognizing his legal scholarship. He received the LL.D. degree from Yale in 1933, from Elon College, in North Carolina, in 1941, and from Hillyer College, now the University of Hartford, in 1955. In 1934, Trinity College, Hartford awarded him the J.U.D. degree, and Boston University conferred the D.C.L., degree in 1942.

In 1940, he published the first edition of "Connecticut Appellate Procedure," which overnight became the indispensable guidebook of bench and bar and, in 1957, following his retirement from the Supreme Court, he published the revised second edition. This was not, however, to be the last demonstration of his ceaseless energy. There has recently been published a supplement to his "Connecticut Appellate Procedure" which he completed during his last illness, bringing the work through volume 147 of the Connecticut Reports. To the very last, the state was the beneficiary of his judicial talents. Following his retirement from the bench, he served actively as a state referee and, in addition to the routine calls of that office, sat as a one-man grand jury in important investigations in Hartford in 1951 and in Norwich in 1954. Always seeking to improve the judicial system, he was active in the effort to establish the Circuit Court, which became reality in 1961.

His interest and activity in the law extended beyond the boundaries of Connecticut, however, for, in addition to participation in the work of the Hartford County, the State, and the American Bar Associations, he found time for lively interest in the work of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, the American Judicature Society, and the American Law Institute.

When we leave the professional aspects of his career, it is to find that his next most consuming interest was young people. It was his conviction that, along with a jurisprudence as nearly perfect as human frailty allowed, the boys and girls who must supply future leadership furnished the substance most vital to the welfare of the state and nation. So, in his exemplary way, he devoted long hours to activities intended to develop character, ideals, and knowledge of governmental processes in young people. To that the end he served, at various times in his career, as a member of the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America, president of the Charter Oak Council of the Boy Scouts of America, and chairman of the council of the Eagle Board Review. He was a member of the boy's work committee of the national Young Men's Christian Association and a trustee of the Hartford Y.M.C.A. The annual Nutmeg Boys State and Laurel Girls State, held on the campus of the University of Connecticut, invariably found him on hand to administer, in judicial robe, the oath of office to the "elected" officers, usually with the addition of a thought-provoking message for the "electorate." Equally active in the Connecticut Y.M.C.A. Youth and Government Program, he was chairman of the sponsoring committee and largely instrumental in initiating the mock legislative sessions for high school students now held as an annual event at the State Capitol.

Perhaps next to his interest in boys and girls was his concern for those unfortunates who, for reasons other than viciousness, had run afoul of the criminal law, and his endeavor to extend the use of probation procedures in cases which seemed to merit them. This explains, in part, his period of service as trustee of the Probation Association and his work with the Connecticut Prison Association, which he served as president for so many years.

His concern for any subject of general interest accounts for his participation, as chairman, in the task of a committee appointed by the Governor to study the Hartford area traffic problem in 1954, and for his chairmanship of a committee to study the Fairfield State Hospital in 1957. A Congregationalist, he assisted, in 1957, in drafting the constitution of the recently formed United Church of Christ. He was, at various times, president of the Greater Hartford Federation of Churches (now the Greater Hartford Council of Churches), president of the Connecticut Opera Association, and a member of the Board of Pardons, the State Library Committee, the Connecticut Board of Education for the Blind, and the Connecticut War Council. Along with it all, he gave unstintingly of his time to church and public organizations and activities in the home town he loved so well. A lifelong member of the Republican Party and the Masonic Order, he also belonged to various patriotic societies, including the Sons of the American Revolution, and was a member of the University Club of Hartford.

The very listing of his diverse interests, so long as to be almost tedious, is, nevertheless, emphatic proof of the widespread confidence reposed in his wisdom and judgment. In final analysis, the fact is paramount that people turned to him primarily because of his brilliant intellect but more particularly because here was a kindly man who exemplified the basic values of a wholesome life, and who gave freely and gladly of his talents in any endeavor which advanced the best interests of his community, his state, and the law. There was no forbidding aloofness, no cold detachment, no demonstration of superior knowledge about him. The easy friendliness, the warm and gentle humility of his manner was magnetic. Pages could be filled with the recital of kindly, thoughtful acts to neighbors, associates and others which are unrecorded because he would wish it so. Nevertheless, they, as much as the brilliance of public achievement, must go to make up the image of the truly great personality which will live beyond the memory of those privileged to know William Mills Maltbie.