Legal Momentum remembers with admiration, respect, and love Judge Judith S. Kaye, the first woman to serve on New York State’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals, and the first woman to serve as that court’s Chief Judge. She died of cancer on January 6, 2016, at age 77.
We honor Judge Kaye’s remarkable life and accomplishments, her leadership, vision, and creativity. In our work at Legal Momentum, we celebrate her lasting contributions to justice on a daily basis. She will always be an example and an inspiration to the Legal Momentum community. We are privileged and proud to have known her, worked with her, and to have called her a friend.
Judith Kaye was a trailblazer in many respects. As one of only nine women to graduate from NYU law school in 1962, she ranked sixth in her class of nearly 290. She started practicing law as an associate at the white-shoe firm Sullivan and Cromwell, and in 1975 she became the first woman partner at Olwine, Connelly, Chase, O’Donnell, & Weyher.
Governor Mario Cuomo appointed her to the Court of Appeals in 1983, and to the position of Chief Judge in 1993, a post she held for 15 years. As Chief Judge, Judge Kaye was a much-needed breath of fresh air for the New York State court system. She inspired all those she worked with—whether court officer, judge, or law clerk—with a mission to dispense justice fairly and to serve the public. She was a role model and mentor like no other. We are especially grateful for her commitment to equal access to justice for women and girls, and to elevating women to positions of leadership.
As she grew to understand how profoundly domestic violence permeated many of the matters before New York judges, Judge Kaye refused to accept “business as usual.” She put an end to the revolving-door handling of cases by championing specialized criminal domestic violence courts, the “integrated domestic violence” (IDV) model. This was a sea change from the long-held view that courts could do little to intervene in “private” matters, identifying domestic violence as an offense against society as well as the individual victim. It became apparent, over time, that domestic violence victims had multiple legal needs that could not be addressed through criminal proceedings alone. Custody, visitation, child support, family offense proceedings, divorce—a single victim of domestic violence could have five or six court proceedings going on simultaneously, often with conflicting orders issued by different judges. Through the one family/one judge approach of IDV court, Judge Kaye brilliantly achieved far more lasting justice and safety for the families in the courts, and eliminated costly—and, too often, dangerous—duplication of court proceedings.
Judge Kaye also established the Center for Court Innovation, working to “create consensus around a pragmatic view of what the law should be,” according to her successor, Judge Jonathan Lippman. She wrote numerous precedent-setting opinions that protected and expanded civil liberties and access to justice for all New Yorkers, on issues such as the death penalty and LGBT rights. Through a rare combination of remarkable legal and administrative ability, she redefined the role of the judiciary in New York State and made the state’s courts models for the rest of the country.
On a personal note, Judge Kaye made it one of her missions to give Legal Momentum’s book, Women: A Celebration of Strength, to all the girls and women she wanted to inspire. Their numbers are legion.
Legal Momentum will greatly miss the incomparable Judge Judith S. Kaye.
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