Remembering Judith Kaye: A Pioneer for Women in the Legal Profession and Advocate for Children and Families


By: Mallory McGee


On Wednesday, January 6, 2016, former New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Judith Kaye passed away at the age of 77 years old, leaving behind a legacy as an advocate for social justice who paved the way for many women in the legal profession.


Born Judith Ann Smith on August 4, 1938 in Monticello, New York to Polish immigrants Benjamin and Lena, Judge Kaye skipped two grades and was admitted to Barnard College at the age of fifteen. At Barnard, she studied Latin American Civilization and worked for local newspapers in the hopes of pursuing a career in journalism. Post graduation, Judge Kaye landed her first journalism job at the Hudson Dispatch, a newspaper in Union City, New Jersey where she reported on the society pages. In the hopes of furthering her journalism career, she decided to enroll in New York University’s law school. She attended law school part time and worked as a copy editor by day. The law began to appeal to her more and in 1962, Judith Kaye graduated from N.Y.U Law School; she was one of ten women in her graduating class of 300.


Following law school graduation, Judge Kaye worked at Sullivan and Cromwell for two years and then went to IBM’s legal department. While raising her family, Judge Kaye worked as an assistant to the dean at N.Y.U. Then she went to Olwine, Connelly, Chase, O’Donnell & Weyher, where she became the first female partner. Her career took a different turn when former Governor Mario Cuomo stated that if elected, he would appoint the first female judge to the Court of Appeals. Despite some saying that she was not qualified, Judge Kaye was sworn in on September 12, 1983. Then, on March 23, 1993, Judge Kaye was sworn in as Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, once again, the first woman to hold the title.


During her time on the bench, Judge Kaye focused on social justice, jury reform, and higher standards for lawyers. Judge Kaye eliminated automatic dismissals from jury duty, thus expanding the pool of jurors and shortening the length of service. She focused on “problem-solving justice” which combined punishment for low-level crimes along with treatment and counseling. Judge Kaye brought this concept to drug courts and domestic violence courts. In an article for the N.Y.U. Law Review, current Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote of Judge Kaye’s problem-solving approach: “She was true to her vision of bringing the courts closer to the communities they serve and making them more relevant to the problems affecting the lives of ordinary people.”


One of Judge Kaye’s areas of focus was in matters concerning children and families. She advocated for permanency for children in foster care and for education for foster parents, and those involved in family court proceedings, on the needs of the children. Judge Kaye created Children’s Centers which were places within the courthouse where parents could leave their children while they handled their court business. Today, the Children’s Centers are located in 34 courthouses throughout New York state. She also advocated for no-fault divorce, as well as, for improvements in matrimonial and domestic violence cases. Judge Kaye was ahead of the times stating in a dissenting opinion in 2006 that future generations will look back on the decision by the Court of Appeals not to grant same-sex marriage rights as an “unfortunate misstep.” Finally, Judge Kaye opened Family Courts to the public, saying that they are an important public institution, therefore, requiring public scrutiny. She stressed that while open to the public, every effort should be made to make sure safeguards are still in place to protect children and families if need be.


Judge Kaye retired as Chief Judge in 2008 because of a law requiring a judge over the age of 70 to retire. She served 15 years as Chief Judge, which was longer than all of her predecessors. Following her retirement, she became of counsel at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. She also chaired the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission for the Justice of Children, which aims to focus on children in the court system early on, to provide for intervention, and to promote a healthy experience for those children who are in foster care following court proceedings.


On October 18, 2013, New York Law School was fortunate to host a summit spearheaded by Judge Kaye to discuss the importance of keeping children in school and out of courts. The New York City School-Justice Partnership Task Force was responsible for identifying and assessing potential trigger points for why children end up in the courts. For example, the task force looked at schools that frequently use suspension as a form of punishment and determined that this can potentially lead to physical altercations, causing the children to be arrested and enter the court system. The task force suggested alternative solutions such as peer mediation and community activism as ways to keep children out of the courts. Judge Kaye offered opening remarks at the summit.


The passing of Judge Kaye is sad for those who knew her and for all in the legal profession. She paved the way for women to hold high positions in the court system and demonstrated a dedication to her convictions that is to be admired and followed by all legal professionals. She was not afraid to make the unpopular choice, if she felt that it was right, and spent her career looking out for those who needed help the most. Judith Kaye is a role model for all lawyers and future lawyers, and her legacy will live on for years to come.