Peter Dorsey was a kind and generous man. Everything he did, on or off the bench, was infused with decency. Sadly, we have all lost a unique and valuable asset. Peter’s legacy is one of hard work and respect for those with whom he came in contact. Peter’s life was one of contribution. He contributed to the community in which he lived, to his church and to the legal community in which he served as a lawyer, prosecutor and judge.
He became the United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut in the mid-seventies. Before then-Senator Weicker secured his nomination for that position, Peter practiced with Flanagan, Dorsey & Flanagan for a long number of years as a talented and dogged trial attorney. He was also, for a time, the Town Attorney for Hamden and a member of the Republican Town Committee. More importantly, he was a father of four, a Scout leader, Little League coach and a lector at the 7:30 AM Mass at St. Rita’s Parish. When his term as United States Attorney ended he returned to practice with his old firm until he was appointed to the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut in 1983 and became the Chief Judge of the Court in 1994. At every stage of his long career, Peter actively participated as a member of countless bar and judicial committees.
Peter personified, in the words of Kingman Brewster, “that generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst, in the stranger.”
I was privileged to work with him as an Assistant United States Attorney and saw those qualities up close. He was a demon hard worker, committed to doing his best to help and protect others. As a prosecutor he successfully tried what was then the largest federal arson case in the country. But he was not just about prosecuting; he was about serving others. As a judge, confronted with onerous and punitive sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences, Peter courageously resisted the vindictiveness that generated that legislation. He understood that among the powers vested in our judges the most important was the power to forgive. He understood and recognized contrition and the concept of giving offenders a chance to do better. He knew that committing a bad act did not make the actor a bad person. Even the best of us make mistakes.
Peter never believed that judges were better than the people they served. He refused to bend to the monastic restrictions that often separated judges from helping others. He went out of his way to offer character testimony for an employee who found herself on trial. On one occasion he jumped off the bench to give CPR to a juror in medical distress. He enjoyed tweaking prosecutors-whose respect he earned and enjoyed– arguing for harsh sentences. When he was right, he was right and he just wouldn’t bend.
Peter could talk. Oh, how he could talk. Some observed that he must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle. He loved nudging others, trading insults, and he especially enjoyed it when the response was better than what he gave. He never wanted to be perceived as something special and this verbal jousting was important to him for just that reason.
Judge Peter Dorsey had an infallible moral compass and his greatest enjoyment was using that compass to guide others. We have been blessed with his contributions in life and continue to be blessed by the legacy of his example.