Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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JOHN DUANE PARK was born in Preston in New London County, on the 26th day of April, 1819, and died at Norwich, where he had spent his life, on the 4th day of August, 1896, in the seventy-eighth year of his age. He was admitted to the bar of New London County in 1847, and commenced the practice of his profession in Norwich. In 1854 he was elected by the General Assembly to the judgeship of the County Court of that county, and in 1855 was elected a judge of the Superior Court. In 1864 he was elected a judge of the Supreme Court, and in 1874 the chief justice of the court, continuing in that office until 1889, when he reached the age of seventy and was retired under the constitutional limitation. Upon his retirement he was made a state referee - the General Assembly then in session creating the office for his benefit. This office was for life, a moderate salary being attached to it. It has since been bestowed upon other judges of the Supreme Court retiring after long service under the constitutional limitation. Judge Park was thus in judicial life, making no account of the final refereeship, for thirty-five years, a term of judicial service rarely, if ever, equalled in the case of any other of our state judges. In 1878 he received from the Yale University the degree of Doctor of Laws.
When Judge Park entered on his judicial life he had acquired but a very limited legal practice and probably would never have attained a very high success at the bar. He had a commanding figure and a great power of endurance, but his mind was slow in its movements, and he was wholly without grace of speech or manner. Withal he had but a very limited knowledge of law. He never became a man of book knowledge. He had, however, a sound practical judgment and strong common sense. He listened patiently to the arguments of counsel and learned law from the administration of it. He absorbed it from the constant legal atmosphere in which he lived. What he had thus laboriously learned he always remembered, and where he made a mistake he never made it again. He thus gathered up out of his own experience a store of legal knowledge that was more ready to his hand as he needed it than knowledge acquired wholly or mainly from the study of books. He had a strong sense of justice, and having never become an adept in the technicalities of the law he was never inclined to apply them, and indeed had little respect for them. When sitting in the Supreme Court he almost always came to a conclusion in his own mind in the course of the argument, at least in his later years on the bench, and when he met the other judges in consultation he generally expressed and often adhered to the conclusion thus reached. Of his opinions when fully formed he was very tenacious. Yet he had no pride of opinion. He clung to an opinion when formed because it was the conviction of his mind, and not in the slightest degree because it was his own. When he dissented from the prevailing view taken it was most often where the equities of the case seemed to demand a decision which some technical rule of law seemed to forbid. A striking illustration of this is found in the case of Dickerson's Appeal from Probate, 55 Conn. Reps. p. 223, where the established rule that a will speaks from the death of the testator carried a portion of the property of the testator in a different direction from that which he clearly intended. All the other judges regarded this rule as applying to and deciding the case, while he thought the equities of the case could be sustained in disregard of the rule, and not only dissented from their view in the discussion, but afterwards filed a vigorous dissenting opinion.
Judge Park was of a most kindly disposition, never losing his temper and never failing in courtesy to the counsel who appeared before him. He never as chief justice showed any pride of office; indeed he seemed to the profession not to have a sufficient sense of the dignity of his high office. He enjoyed greatly the society of his brother judges when they met in the Supreme Court or for consultation, and of his professional brethren when he met them at the sessions of the Superior Court. Yet, while enjoying greatly the humor of others, he had no wit or humor of his own, nor any ready anecdote for their amusement. His pleasant home at Norwich was always open to his professional friends, who never failed of a welcome when they called, and here his fellow judges frequently met around his hospitable table when a session of the Supreme Court brought them to the town. Judge Park was far from being an ideal chief justice. Our state has rarely, if ever, had a judge of its highest court, much less a chief justice, of so limited early education, and so little culture. Roger Sherman perhaps had as little of both, but he was a man of that over-mastering ability that knows no conditions. Judge Park, like him, but without his genius, rose above all his disadvantages, and wholly out of his natural qualities, by faithful application to his judicial duties, built up a strong judicial character and reputation, and retired, when he reached the bound of judicial life, with the high respect of the profession and of the public.
Judge Park was married in 1864 to Miss Emma W. Allen of Middlebury, Vermont, who died in 1884, leaving no children, a daughter born in 1864 having died in infancy. He never married again. He was a communicant of the Episcopal Church and a man of consistent christian life.