Judge Simon Bernstein is a name every Connecticut schoolchild should know, for his actions as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1965 brought about the state guarantee of a free public education for every child.

There shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state. The general assembly shall implement this principle by appropriate legislation. (Article Eighth, Section 1, Constitution of the State of Connecticut)

As the author and champion of the state constitution’s education clause, Judge Bernstein’s legacy for ensuring the civil rights of Connecticut public school students will continue to have a far-reaching impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of school children throughout the state for years to come. The clause sets the legal standard against which education policies and practices at both the local and state level must measure up. Yet the legal standard is not straightforward, and the plain meaning of “free public elementary and secondary schools” entails ever so much more than a simple reading might suggest. (But that’s a discussion for legal scholars, and the tale of why and how the education clause came about during the state’s last constitutional convention nearly 50 years ago will have to await some future column.) 

In 2008 Judge Bernstein was called upon to explain and defend the meaning of that clause by serving as an amicus curiae contributor on behalf of plaintiffs in a pre-trial appeal before the state Supreme Court in CCJEF v. Rell, the school finance adequacy and equity case filed in 2005 and currently scheduled for trial in July 2014. His amicus brief and the subsequent favorable ruling of the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutional right of all children to a “good” education — i.e., a quality, suitable, or adequate education — commensurate with changing times and consistent with his original intent.

The education clause also laid the legal foundations of two earlier landmark education cases: Horton v. Meskill in the late 1970s, which brought about more equalized state funding for Connecticut’s 169 towns; and Sheff v. O’Neill, which attacked the de facto racial and economic segregation of Hartford students.

Born in Hartford in 1913, Judge Bernstein grew up in a large, working-class Jewish family in Frog Hollow. Fun-loving, bright, but by his own account not an especially diligent student, he attended the Hartford public schools. He graduated from Trinity College in 1933 and from the Harvard Law School in 1936. He served as a member of the Hartford Board of Alderman and its Finance Committee, and was active in the local Democratic Party. After moving his young family to Bloomfield, he served on the local Board of Education (1951-55) and continued to be involved in Greater Hartford Jewish community life. His Hartford and Bloomfield local government service made clear the budgetary constraints under which school districts and their municipalities must operate and the critical role that state education aid plays in funding the schools.

While practicing law in Hartford (1936-70), Judge Bernstein served as a Bloomfield town judge and chief of the Connecticut Assembly of Municipal Court Judges. Originally appointed to the Circuit Court, he retired as a Superior Court judge. From 1960-63 he served as Deputy Secretary of State under then-Secretary Ella Grasso and Governor Abraham Ribicoff. Of the countless cases he heard as a judge, or as a practicing lawyer who fought on behalf of plaintiffs, it is the civil rights cases — especially his efforts to end racially restrictive covenants in property deeds and to ensure education equality for all public school children — that he points to as his most important life’s work.

Upon retiring at the age of 70, Judge Bernstein and his wife Muriel moved to sunny Sarasota but continued to maintain a summer home in Westbrook. Muriel passed away in 1989, and late last year his second wife, the former Mary Ann Hytken of Sarasota, also passed away. He and Muriel are the parents of three daughters: Sara Bernstein, a lawyer and former Public Defender for the Judicial District of Hartford, who lives in Bloomfield with her husband, Judge Trial Referee Joseph Shortall; Risa Sodi, Italian Language Program Director at Yale University, who resides in New Haven with her husband, Stefano Sodi, a neurology Research Associate at the Yale School of Medicine, and their twin sons; and Judith Kahn, a retired lawyer who resides in Florida with her partner, Steven Rosen. Judge Bernstein also has three stepchildren by marriage.

In the words of eldest daughter Judith, “My father’s life is a shining example of what good one person can accomplish. He has spent untold hours doing what is right and urging others to do so as well. Plus, he is a truly nice guy who has been an endless support to all the members of our family as well as many members of the communities where he has lived.”

Connecticut is indeed fortunate to count Judge Simon Bernstein among its living treasures. In honor of his outstanding lifetime achievements that have contributed to the common good, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the General Assembly of the State of Connecticut have each issued proclamations marking his 100th birthday on January 17, 2013.

For more about Judge Bernstein, check out the online oral history interview conducted by Trinity College student Katie Campbell. Or pick up a copy of former Connecticut State Historian Christopher Collier’s Clearwater Press book tracing the evolution of the state’s public schools. Congratulatory notes or birthday cards can be forwarded to the Hon. Simon Bernstein, c/o P.O. Box 260398, Hartford, CT 06126.

Dianne Kaplan deVries is an education consultant who also serves as Project Director for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, plaintiffs in the CCJEF v. Rell education adequacy and equity lawsuit. Opinions expressed here, however, are solely hers and not necessarily those of CCJEF.

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