Judith S. Kaye
As the first woman to serve as chief judge of the state of New York, Judith S. Kaye transformed the state’s entire court system. Kaye graduated from the New York University Law School in 1962 and joined the law firm of Olwine, Connelly, Chase, O’Donnell, and Weyher, eventually becoming the firm’s first woman partner. Her skills led to an appointment from Governor Mario Cuomo as the first female justice of the New York State Court of Appeals in 1983; she later became chief justice of the Court of Appeals. In 1993, Cuomo appointed her as the first female chief judge of the state of New York. From the bench, Kaye advocated for children, women’s health, and solutions to domestic violence, and served as vice president of the Legal Aid Society.
Judith S. Kaye was the first woman to serve as chief judge of the state of New York and chief judge of the Court of Appeals of the state of New York.
Early Life and Career
The daughter of Lena and Benjamin Smith, Judith Smith Kaye was born on August 4, 1938, in Monticello, New York, where she lived until she attended Barnard College (B.A., 1958) and New York University Law School (LL.B., 1962). Married to Stephen Rackow Kaye, partner at Proskauer Rose Goetz and Mendelsohn, she took great pride in her three successful children, Luisa Kaye Hagemeier, Jonathan Kaye, and Gordon Kaye.
She began her illustrious career as a litigation associate at the distinguished New York law firm of Olwine, Connelly, Chase, O’Donnell, and Weyher (1969–1983), later becoming the firm’s first woman partner. Her experience and accomplishments as a trial lawyer and her efforts on behalf of the bar association distinguished her from other lawyers. Recognizing her talents and looking to diversify the court system, Governor Mario Cuomo appointed her as the first female justice of the New York State Court of Appeals in its 150-year history. On September 12, 1983, she began as associate judge and then became chief justice of the Court of Appeals. On February 22, 1993, she was also appointed by Governor Cuomo as the first female chief judge of the state of New York.
Kaye believed that although the Court of Appeals is an outstanding court and has maintained its tradition of excellence, the court system of the state of New York was bogged down in an overabundance of cases. Her goal as chief justice was to make the court system work better and become “more responsive to the needs of modern society.”
Advocacy and Legacy
As an attorney and as a chief justice, Kaye worked diligently to improve the status of women and children and to address domestic violence. Championing women’s health issues, she was a founding member and honorary chair of the Judges and Lawyers Breast Cancer Alert. She cochaired the Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children and is a member of the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence. She wrote many articles concerning domestic issues.
Kaye was a trustee and vice president of the Legal Aid Society, a trustee and vice-chair of the Clients Security Fund (now the Lawyers Fund for Client Protection), and a trustee of the American Judicature Society. She was active on various committees of several bar associations. She was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the United States Nominating Commission for Judges of the Second Circuit.
She served as a trustee of the New York University Law Center Foundation and of Barnard College. She sat on the board of directors of the Institute of Judicial Administration, the board of editors of New York State Bar Journal, and the board of directors of the Conference of Chief Justices.
Kaye has been awarded many honorary doctor of laws degrees at several universities and law schools. She has also been the recipient of many special awards and medals.
A frequent speaker on issues involving gender, the legal profession, and state and constitutional law, she delivered the 1996 commencement address, “Enduring Values in a Changing World,” at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a special lecture, “An Appreciation of Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo,” at the Sephardic Congregation Shearith Israel in 1995. Both speeches referred to the life and the values of Benjamin Cardozo, one of the greatest jurists of all time.
Taking great pride in her role as first female chief judge, Kaye compared and contrasted her role to that of Cardozo, a Jewish justice of the United States Supreme Court, who, like herself, served as chief judge of the Court of Appeals of New York (for eighteen years). Kaye and her family were long-standing members of the Sephardic Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City, as was Cardozo. On one point, however, the two justices did not agree. When the synagogue moved to new quarters, the board voted to retain separate seating in accordance with Cardozo’s eloquent arguments against the elimination of separate seating for men and women. As a result, Judith Kaye, chief justice of the state of New York, could not sit in the main sanctuary, but had to sit upstairs in the women’s gallery.
Judith S. Kaye died January 7, 2016.
“The Changing World of Children: The Responsibility of the Law and the Courts.” 65 New York State Bar Journal 7 (November 1993).
“Children Centers in the Courts: A Service to Children, Families and the Judicial System.” 76 New York State Bar Journal 6 (September/October 1995).
“The Status of Women in Law Firms and the Need for More Woman Judges.” 28 Trial Magazine 20 (August 1992).
“Women and the Law: The Law Can Change People.” 66 NYU Law Review 1929 (December 1991).