Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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Judge Aaron J. Palmer of the Superior Court suffered a stroke at his home on August 30, 1971 and died at the Middlesex Hospital in Middletown on that same evening. He was sixty-seven years old.
Judge Palmer was born in New York City on August 13, 1904. His parents, Isadore and Bethia Clemens Palmer, came to live in Middletown when Aaron was four years old. He attended the old Central Grammar School and the Middletown High School, where he was graduated with the class of 1921. He entered Wesleyan University and was graduated with the class of 1925. During his college years, he was the Middletown correspondent for the Hartford Courant and the Associated Press. He was active in athletics and an exceptionally good basketball player . Being redheaded, he early acquired the nickname "Red" Palmer by which he was affectionately known to his school and college mates of those days. He was a good student and popular with his fellows. His personality was a likable one and attracted friends and admirers.
After graduating from Wesleyan, Judge Palmer entered Harvard Law School. There his roommate and friend was the Honorable Erwin N. Griswold who later became Dean of the Harvard Law School and onetime Solicitor General of the United States. After graduation from law school, where he made an excellent record, Judge Palmer was admitted to the Connecticut Bar in 1929 and started the practice of law in Hartford with the Honorable Saul Berman, then referee in bankruptcy for the District of Connecticut. In 1935, Judge Palmer opened an office in Middletown. At the time of his appointment to the Court of Common Pleas in 1960, he was a law partner of the Honorable John F. Pickett. Judge Palmer was an excellent lawyer. He worked hard and prepared his cases thoroughly both as to the law and as to the facts. He acquired a substantial clientele.
Judge Palmer early became active in politics, aligning with the Democratic party. He was an astute politician and an excellent organizer. He served as judge of the local City Court for two terms. He was also city attorney, notably during the terms of Charles Schaefer, a leading citizen of the town who personally valued young Palmer's legal ability and sound judgment. Throughout the years that Judge Palmer practiced law, he was active in public affairs and in the local and state bar associations.
Judge Palmer was a member of the Democratic town committee from 1935 to 1960 and was a treasurer of the local party for twenty years. He served a term on the Middletown Housing Authority under Mayor Herbert Bell, and later was a member of the Middletown Personnel Appeals Board. He served from 1952 to 1961 on the Middletown Board of Education and the Middletown Parking Authority. He belonged to the Middletown Bar Association, at one time being its president, and to the Middlesex County Bar, and the Connecticut State Bar and the American Bar Association. He was a busy man.
In 1960, on nomination of Governor Abraham Ribicoff, Aaron J. Palmer was appointed a judge of the Court of Common Pleas. Three years later Governor John Dempsey, recognizing Judge Palmer's ability as a judicial officer, named him a judge of the Superior Court to fill the vacancy in January, 1963 upon the retirement of Judge Thomas E. Troland of New London. Judge Palmer made an excellent judge. He listened to the evidence and arguments of counsel carefully and patiently. He studied the cases which he tried with great care and rendered his judgment promptly. He was courteous and kind to jurors and witnesses so that their appearance in court would not be an ordeal but a pleasant and challenging experience.
When first appointed to the bench, Judge Palmer was required to give up a lucrative practice, but he said of his judicial office: "This is a job that means something. Sure, my income will not be as great, but every lawyer has a natural inclination to aspire to be a judge. It's a challenging task, but what else is there in life if your income is sufficient and you're doing something worthwhile?"
He was a man of great courage and calm, cool judgment. The troubled decade of 1960 to 1970 presented many difficult problems to the courts. Judge Palmer was holding a criminal term at New Haven. Bobby Seale, chairman of the Black Panthers, had been indicted on a murder-kidnapping-conspiracy charge involving the death of Alex Rackley, a member of the Black Panthers whose dead body had been found in Middlefield. Judge Palmer conducted the pretrial proceedings. These criminal proceedings received much public attention not only in this state but across the country. The case evoked so much publicity that it became apparent that there would be demonstrations and possibly other action which would disrupt the proper conduct to the hearings and the later trial.
Judge Palmer, without precedents in dealing with such a situation, formulated rules for the conduct of these hearings and for the later trial. The rules, among other things, prevented lawyers for either side from making extrajudicial statements to newsmen and limited the scope of demonstrations around the courthouse. These rules were followed throughout all of the proceedings pending at that time and subsequently and successfully withstood attacks, on the ground that they violated constitutional principles, all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. Judge Palmer believed that in spite of the turmoil a jury would be competent to make, and would make, a final determination of guilt or innocence solely on the evidence produced in the courtroom.
Judge Palmer was the first Connecticut judge to allow a defendant charged with a capital offense to have a full hearing for admission to bail. Relying on procedures he researched from other states, Judge Palmer ruled that the prosecution in a capital criminal case had the burden of showing why a defendant should not be released on bail. He noted that the constitution of Connecticut in article 1, section 8, stated that every defendant is entitled to bail except in capital offences "where the proof is evident or the presumption great." He ruled that the prosecution must show that the proof was evident and the presumption great.
A very short time before his death, Judge Palmer, at a session of the Superior Court in Middletown, enjoined the so-called Powder Ridge Rock Festival in Middlefield. This festival proposed to bring to that area a large number of young people for an affair which very probably would become an orgy. After a hearing, he declared the festival a nuisance and a violation of the zoning regulations of the town of Middlefield, overruling the promoters' arguments that their rights under the first amendment to the federal constitution would be violated by any injunction.
On May 29, 1943 Judge Palmer and Alice M. Murphy, a well-known and attractive young woman in Middletown, were married. They resided first on Lawn Avenue and later on Mansfield Terrace. Their home was always a hospitable one. Their married life was a very, very happy one.
Judge Palmer's brethren at the bench and at the bar, and the many with whom he was associated in public affairs and in social events, will remember him always as an excellent lawyer, an able and courageous judge, and a devout, warm and friendly man.
Ye'Hai Zichro Baruch.
(May his memory be a blessing and inspiration to all.)