Judge Judith S. Kaye: Mother of Justice

Judge Judith S. Kaye: Mother of Justice[1]

By: Andrea Bonilla | Senior Staff Writer

On January 6, 2016, Judge Judith Smith Kaye passed away leaving behind a remarkable legacy. Judge Kaye was the first woman named to the highest court in New York and the first to serve as the state’s Chief Judge. Her dedication to judicial service as well as her many accomplishments while in office are inspiring and motivating.

Judge Kaye oversaw 1,200 judges and 360 courthouses, reformed the court system to better protect children and their families, and modernized the jury system.[2] Prior to becoming a judge of the New York Court of Appeals, Judge Kaye was a commercial litigator.[3] She created the first Commercial Division in New York County, which led to the establishment of Commercial Divisions in nine other counties.[4] She also created innovative problem-solving courts to deal with situations involving drug use, domestic violence, homelessness and mental health.[5] Up until her death, Judge Kaye was of counsel to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where she remained since she stepped down from her position as Chief Judge in 2008.[6]

Judge Kaye was born and raised in Monticello, Sullivan County, New York.[7] She graduated from Barnard College in 1958, majoring in Latin American Civilization.[8] Judge Kaye had planned to be a journalist and worked as a reporter at the Hudson Dispatch in Union City, New Jersey.[9] She believed law school would enhance her goal of becoming a foreign correspondent.[10] However, while in law school, she became interested in a legal career.[11] She obtained her law degree from the New York University School of Law in 1962.[12] Judge Kaye was one of ten women in her graduating class of three hundred.[13]

Judge Kaye’s first legal employer was Sullivan & Cromwell, where she worked as an associate for two years.[14] While there, she met Stephen Rackow Kaye, whom she married on February 11, 1964.[15] After leaving Sullivan & Cromwell, Judge Kaye worked for one year in the IBM legal department in Armonk, New York.[16] She eventually returned to New York University where she served as a part-time assistant to Russell Niles, then the Dean of the School of Law, from 1965 to 1969, while raising her family.[17]

Judge Kaye joined Olwine, Connelly, Chase, O’Donnell & Weyher in 1969.[18] She was named the first woman partner in the firm in 1975.[19] As a commercial litigator, Judge Kaye represented clients such as the Lionel Corporation, the New York Produce Exchange, Ralston Purina Co., the Singer Company, and U.S. Industries.[20]

While campaigning for the office of Governor, Mario Cuomo declared his intention to appoint the first woman to the New York Court of Appeals if he were elected.[21] He was elected and nominated Judge Kaye, who was confirmed unanimously by the Senate, and sworn in on September 12, 1983 as the first woman judge of the New York State Court of Appeals.[22]

On February 22, 1993, Governor Cuomo nominated Judith Kaye to be Chief Judge.[23] She was unanimously confirmed by the Senate, and was sworn in as the 22nd Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals by Acting Chief Judge Simons on March 23, 1993.[24]

Accomplishments

In 1995, a task force of The Commercial and Federal Litigation Section of the New York State Bar Association issued a report calling for the creation of a new commercial court for New York.[25] Citing the section’s initiative, Chief Judge Kay established the Commercial Courts Task Force to implement the concept proposed in the report.[26] In 1996, Commercial Divisions were established in New York and Monroe Counties.[27] The success of the Commercial Divisions in New York and Monroe Counties led to a call for Commercial Division expansion to other counties.[28]

Judge Kaye spearheaded many changes, which reduced the burdens on jurors and the court system.[29] For example, she successfully urged the Legislature to abolish all automatic exemptions and expand the jury pool, thereby reducing the average length of a juror’s service from two weeks to one day or one trial.[30] An automated call-in system was instituted to allow jurors to find out in advance whether they were needed on a particular day.[31] In 2001, automatic sequestration in criminal cases was eliminated; instead New York gave trial judges the discretion to decide whether sequestration was necessary in each particular case.[32]

Judge Kaye focused on “problem-solving justice,” combining punishment for low-level crimes along with treatment and counseling.[33] She also focused on matters concerning children and families.[34] For example, she advocated for permanency for children in foster care and for education on the needs of the children for foster parents and individuals involved in family court proceedings.[35] She also created Children’s Centers within courthouses where parents could leave their children while they handled court matters.[36] These centers are now located in thirty-four courthouses throughout New York State.[37] Judge Kaye also opened Family Courts to the public.[38] She was an advocate for no-fault divorce and improvements in matrimonial and domestic violence cases.[39]

Judge Kaye’s efforts to increase state funding for courthouse facilities resulted in the construction or renovation of courthouses across the state.[40] Under her administration, the Court of Appeals Hall was dramatically expanded, renovated, and restored.[41]

Judge Kaye was an advocate of adherence to the State Constitution in cases where it should be construed to afford New Yorkers greater rights than those afforded by the Federal Constitution.[42] She was also involved in notable decisions such as the decision in S&S Hotel Ventures Limited Partnership v. 777 S.H. Corp., which she authored, and the decision against same-sex marriage in Hernandez v. Robles, from which she dissented.

Involvement

Judge Kaye served as Co-Chair of the ABA Commission on the American Jury, as a member of the Board of Editors of the New York State Bar Journal, as a Director of the National Center for State Courts, as a Trustee of the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation, as a Founding Member and Honorary Chair of Judges and Lawyers Breast Cancer Alert, and as President of the Conference of Chief Justices from 2002 to 2003.[43] She authored over a hundred published articles during her tenure on the Court, and was called upon to deliver countless speeches throughout her judicial career.[44]

President Jimmy Carter appointed Judge Kaye to the United States Nominating Commission for Judges of the Second Circuit.[45] Judge Kaye also served on the Board of Directors of the Legal Aid Society and on the New York State Bar Association’s Judicial Selection Committee.[46] She was a member of the professional ethics committees of both the New York State and New York City Bar Associations and served on a number of other committees of those associations as well as of the American Bar Association.[47] In 1981, the New York Court of Appeals appointed her as a charter trustee of the Clients’ Security Fund, or the Lawyer’s Fund for Client Protection.[48]

Awards

In 1992, the New York State Bar Association presented Judge Kaye with its first Ruth G. Schapiro Memorial Award and in 1997 it presented her with its Gold Medal for distinguished service, the highest honor that Association bestows.[49] In 2000, the American Bar Association presented Judge Kaye with its Margaret Brent Award, for outstanding achievement by women in the law, and, in 2005, it presented her with its John Marshall Award, given to recognize those dedicated to the improvement of the administration of justice.[50] The New York State Bar Association also presented Judge Kaye with the International Section’s Distinction in New York International Law and Affairs Award in 2015.[51] New York University School of Law presented Judge Kaye with its Vanderbilt Gold Medal, and Barnard College awarded her its Medal of Distinction.[52]

Retirement

Judge Kaye stepped down from her position as Chief Judge in 2008 when she reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.[53] Among Judge Kaye’s post-court accomplishments is her revamping of the process to choose new judges to the Court of Appeals.[54] Until 1977, the top judges were elected.[55] The state Commission on Judicial Nomination was created to recommend candidates to a list from which governors would choose judges and to remove politics from the appointments.[56] Following her retirement, Judge Kaye was appointed by Gov. David Patterson to lead the commission.[57]


 

[1] See Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law A Conversation with Four Chief Justices, 62 The Record 255, 270 (2007) (Judge Kaye stating “My favorite moniker that I got from a prisoner was ‘Mother of Justice.’ ‘Dear Mother of Justice.’”); See also Andrew Denney, Kaye Honored as Trailblazer, Innovator, Friend, 255 N.Y.L.J. 2 (2016) (“Of the many titles held by Judith Kaye over her long career, one of her favorites came in a letter from a prisoner who began with the salutation, ‘Dear Mother of Justice.’”).

[2] New York State Bar Association Mourns Death of Former Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, nysba (Jan. 7, 2016), http://www.nysba.org/CustomTemplates/SecondaryStandard.aspx?id=61031.

[3] Steven C. Krane, Judith Smith Kaye, nycourts.gov, http://www.nycourts.gov/history/legal-history-new-york/history-legal-bench-court-appeals.html?http://www.nycourts.gov/history/legal-history-new-york/luminaries-court-appeals/kaye-judith.html.

[4] Krane, supra note 3.

[5] New York State Bar Association, supra note 2.

[6] Joel Stashenko, Judith Kaye, Pathbreaking Chief Judge, Dies at 77, n.y.l.j. (January 8, 2016), http://www.newyorklawjournal.com/id=1202746503847/Judith-Kaye-Pathbreaking-Chief-Judge-Dies-at-77?mcode=1202615704879&curindex=0&curpage=ALL.

[7] Krane, supra note 3.

[8] Krane, supra note 3.

[9] Stashenko, supra note 6.

[10] Stashenko, supra note 6.

[11] Stashenko, supra note 6.

[12] Stashenko, supra note 6.

[13] Mallory McGee, Remembering Judith Kaye: A Pioneer for Women in the Legal Profession and Advocate for Children and Families, justfamilies.org (January 13, 2016), http://www.justfamilies.org/5456-2/.

[14] Krane, supra note 3.

[15] Krane, supra note 3.

[16] Krane, supra note 3.

[17] Krane, supra note iii; See also McGee, supra note xiii.

[18] Krane, supra note 3.

[19] Krane, supra note 3.

[20] Krane, supra note 3.

[21] Krane, supra note 3.

[22] Krane, supra note 3.

[23] Krane, supra note 3.

[24] Krane, supra note 3.

[25] New York State Bar Association’s Commercial and Federal Litigation Section Celebrates 20th Anniversary, nysba (November 20, 2008), https://www.nysba.org/CustomTemplates/Content.aspx?id=6026.

[26] See Commercial and Federal Litigation Section, supra note 25.

[27] Commercial and Federal Litigation Section, supra note 25.

[28] Mitchell L. Bach & Lee Applebaum, A History of the Creation and Jurisdiction of Business Courts in the Last Decade, 60 Bus. Law. 147, 154 (2004).

[29] Krane, supra note 3.

[30] Krane, supra note 3.

[31] Krane, supra note 3.

[32] Krane, supra note 3.

[33] McGee, supra note 13.

[34] McGee, supra note 13.

[35] McGee, supra note 13.

[36] McGee, supra note 13.

[37] McGee, supra note 13.

[38] McGee, supra note 13.

[39] McGee, supra note 13.

[40] Krane, supra note 3.

[41] Krane, supra note 3.

[42] Krane, supra note 3.

[43] Krane, supra note 3.

[44] Krane, supra note 3.

[45] Krane, supra note 3.

[46] Krane, supra note 3.

[47] Krane, supra note 3.

[48] Krane, supra note 3.

[49] Krane, supra note 3.

[50] Krane, supra note 3.

[51] New York State Bar Association, supra note 2.

[52] Krane, supra note 3.

[53] Gormley, supra note 48.

[54] Gormley, supra note 48.

[55] Gormley, supra note 48.

[56] Gormley, supra note 48.

[57] Stashenko, supra note 6.

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