Connecticut State Library with state seal

Memorials of Connecticut Judges and Attorneys
As Printed in the Connecticut Reports
volume 72, page(s) 736-737


JAMES PHELPS, an ex-judge of the Supreme Court of this State, was born in Colebrook, Conn., January 12th, 1822, and died at his home in Essex on January 15th, 1900. His father, Dr. Launcelot Phelps, was a citizen of influence and from 1835 to 1839 was a member of Congress, a position to which the son succeeded forty years later. The latter entered Trinity College, but was compelled by ill health to abandon his studies before the end of his first year. Subsequently he studied law with Isaac Toucey at Hartford, with Samuel Ingham in Essex, and in the Yale Law School, and was admitted to the bar in 1840. Soon after this he opened an office in Essex, where he resided the rest of his life. He held the office of judge of probate for several years and was elected as a democrat to the lower house of the General Assembly in the years 1853, 1854 and 1856, and to the State senate in 1858 and 1859. In 1863 the legislature, then under the control of a republican majority, elected him to the Superior Court, and on the expiration of his term of eight years he was unanimously re-elected. Two years later he was unanimously elected a judge of the Supreme Court. In 1875 he was offered a nomination for Congress by his party, which he accepted, although inclined to remain on the bench. He was elected by a considerable majority to the 44th Congress, and again to the 45th, 46th and 47th Congresses, and then declined a further nomination. He was a very useful member while in Congress and had a place on some of its most important committees. After he finally left Congress he was nominated by Gov. Harrison, in 1885, to fill a vacancy in the Superior Court, and was unanimously elected by the General Assembly. He remained on the Superior Court until 1892, when he reached the constitutional limit of seventy years of age, and retired to private life.

Judge Phelps was a modest and unassuming man, quiet in his manner and with no self-assertion. He seemed much more fitted for the quiet of the court room then for the strenuous life of a politician. He was not, however, at all wanting in positive convictions. He was an able judge, well grounded in legal principles and with a sound judgment in applying them. He was a clean, honorable, upright man. His opinions while a member of the Supreme Court are well written, showing a clear mind and a thorough grasp of the matter in hand. Though a partisan in his politics he was never offensively so, and never consciously allowed his political affiliations to affect his judicial action.

In 1845 he married Lydia A. Ingham, the daughter of his preceptor, and she survives him; two sons, Samuel Ingham and James Launcelot, predeceased him.