Civil Rights Champion Diane Polan Dies

Paul Bass PhotoDiane Polan was New Haven’s toughest “cookie” — and New Haven became a better place as a result.

Polan, a crusading criminal defense and civil rights lawyer, died Friday morning from an inoperable brain tumor at the age of 65.

Her nickname was “Cookie.” She was sweet, but she didn’t crumble easily. If at all.

Since coming to New Haven in 1969 as a member of Yale’s first class to admit women, Polan took on barriers with determination, good cheer, and intelligence. After graduation from Yale Law School, she set up shop in New Haven, representing women, workers, and others whose rights were violated. She took on high-profile criminal cases as well, including a not guilty verdict in a murder case based on a wrongfully obtained confession.

Early on, before more women entered the legal profession, Polan fought back against male lawyers who tried to intimidate women entering the bar. One day when she received an anonymously mailed lewd cartoon about female lawyers, she had the postmark traced to the office of a prominent local attorney (who later became a judge) and outed him.

In recent years she represented citizens who had cellphone cameras confiscated by New Haven police. Her work not only exonerated them in court, but forced the police department to change its approach to training cops in respecting the rights of citizen-photographers; and led to a change in state law. That led to her and one of her clients being named New Haven Independent “Women of the Year’ in 2012.

When the feds rounded up 105 reputed gang members in a massive sweep called “Operation Bloodline,” she convinced a federal judge that the arrestees’ rights to a speedy trial and effective counsel were being violated. In one difficult defense case involving a man who fled from and then drove at the cops, Polan won a mistrial by revealing misconduct by officers.

She devoted years to serving on the board of New Haven Legal Assistance Association, including a term as board president. She was known for encouraging other women to become lawyers, then mentoring them.

Polan also agitated for change in the public schools as a public-school parent, succeeding in getting more textbooks ordered.

“Cookie was a woman of extraordinary depth and strength and has been a civil rights advocate her entire career, always helping the disabled, the disenfranchised, and the disadvantaged,” said Tom Ullmann, New Haven’s chief public defender. Ullmann and Polan were lifelong friends ever since they studied together for the bar exam in the early 1970s. “We will miss her terribly,” he said.

Polan was in hospice when the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Association last week gave her a Champion of Liberty Award. It set up a new annual Cookie Polan Award in her honor.

She is survived by her spouse, Linda Barrett, and twin daughters Rosa and Maya.

Read more about Polan in this obituary from the Connecticut Law Tribune and this recent New Haven Register article by Randall Beach.


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posted by: Bill Saunders on October 21, 2016  2:29pm

A huge loss to the community—the embodiment of fighting the good fight….

posted by: Dwightstreeter on October 21, 2016  3:06pm

What an amazing woman and lawyer. This is what a well lived life looks like.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on October 21, 2016  5:44pm

I met her a long time ago in the edge of the woods and I said to her you are the Radical lawyer.She ask me my name and I told her. She said you are 3/5ths.I said yes.She told me I heard you on WPKN and to keep up the good work.I told her you remind me of the lawyers Elizabeth Fink Lynne Stewart and Susan Tipograph. She told me she knew all three of them.

Rest In Peace

posted by: Razzie on October 21, 2016  5:50pm

Because of her . . . New Haven is a much better place than it would otherwise have been. I am saddened to hear of her passing.

posted by: Mikelive on October 21, 2016  8:05pm

All the good ones go way too early, RIP Cookie.

posted by: Semi Semi-Dikoko on October 21, 2016  8:16pm

Ms. Polan was a champion on the side of the underserved and the disenfranchised, who never backed down from the good fight. She will be missed enormously.

My sincere condolences to the family, may you find some solace in the exemplarity of the life she has lived.

posted by: Josiah Brown on October 22, 2016  10:00am

Thanks for the obituary on this sad occasion.

My family became friendly with Cookie over the past decade as next-door neighbors.  She was a person of principle who was politically savvy, a strong woman who could be sweet, a proud mother and dedicated lawyer, an engaged citizen and advocate for the public schools, a dog-lover and an enthusiastic fan of UConn women’s basketball.

Her volunteer causes included a bike ride to combat multiple sclerosis, an event in which—inspired by her sister—she participated for many years.

She enjoyed introducing younger folks.  Thanks to her, our family became particularly close friends with one set of her tenants and also friendly with others.

Among my most vivid memories of Cookie was when we volunteered as canvassing partners for Chris Murphy’s 2012 Senate campaign, together making the case for him and against Linda McMahon – and enjoying chatting as we walked door-to-door.  Along the way, we met a number of people – friends and acquaintances – that Cookie knew from her many years of working and living in New Haven.

Peace and comfort to her daughters and to Linda Barrett, her spouse and loving caretaker during her scary and painful last few months.  My final conversation with Cookie was at a block party in August, when neighbors were delighted to see her (and Linda) but understandably worried about Cookie’s health.  She balanced the agony and privacy of her situation with as much warmth, spirit, candor, and dignity as could be imagined.  Farewell.

posted by: BenBerkowitz on October 22, 2016  5:39pm

So sad for this loss for NHV and for Linda and Diane’s daughters. Cookie was our downstairs neighbor at SeeClickFix. I’ve been missing her hallway quips since she stopped coming into the office. Love to you Linda.


posted by: Sally Joughin on October 28, 2016  2:50pm

People Against Injustice, the grassroots group I was involved with for 13 years, always considered Cookie Polan as a champion for the justice we were seeking.  I moved from New Haven to Portland OR in 2009, but have not forgotten Cookie and all the good work she did to represent and help people.  I was so shocked and saddened to read of her passing.  What a loss for justice in New Haven, as well as for her family.