Barnard College President Debora Spar
Talks With NY Chief Judge Judith Kaye
Saying that it has been “lawyer heaven to review the issues that are of such consummate importance to the everyday lives of the people of New York and to establish a body of law that continues on and on into the future,” Hon. Judith S. Kaye, Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, spoke about her career on the bench before a packed crowd of students, judges and other attendees at Barnard College last month. Judge Kaye, who prepares to step down from her position in January after a much-lauded 15 year tenure that has been marked by sweeping reform in the court system, jury selection protocol, and protection of individual rights, spoke eloquently from the podium and later answered questions in talk show format with Barnard President Debora Spar.
In remarks that were peppered with humor (her advice to women in the legal profession is, “Never wear a wrap skirt…for obvious reasons,”), Judge Kaye discussed her background (her first job after graduating from Barnard College in 1958 was as a social reporter for a local New Jersey newspaper: “My misery led me to enroll in law school…I wanted to get off the social page!”) and her difficulty entering the field of law as a woman (“It was no picnic finding a job as a woman in 1962 in a law firm...I kept hearing “Our quota of women is filled.”) But prevail she did, ultimately landing a job as a legal associate at Sullivan & Cromwell, and after 21 years of private practice combined with motherhood (“I have one lawyer daughter and two non-women,” she remarked laughingly), in 1983 former New York State Governor Mario Cuomo appointed her as the first woman to serve on the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. In 1993, she was appointed the court’s Chief Judge.
As CEO of the New York State courts, Judge Kaye has overseen a $2 billion budget and 15,000 employees: “I’ve had a lot of challenges and a lot of joys,” she summed up thoughtfully. In the positive column, Judge Kaye has enjoyed well-deserved credit for reforming jury selection procedures, abolishing automatic exemptions that enabled some citizens to escape their civic duty. “Few things please me more than when people say they served on a jury and it was a good experience,” she added. Judge Kaye also expressed satisfaction with the recent creation of specialized courts that handle domestic violence and nonviolent drug cases, an innovation that has earned her national recognition. “We’re trying to intercept the downward spiral and turn lives around,” she summed up, noting that two new community courts have just opened in midtown Manhattan and White Plains.
In the column of issues needing further work, Judge Kaye acknowledged that there is “tremendous room for improvement” in New York’s foster care system. “We have a great responsibility to do what we can to promote stability and permanency for children,” she explained, noting that there are a half million children in New York’s foster care system, over 6,000 of whose parental rights have been terminated, thus having no permanent home. “We need more people willing to step forward,” she concluded, pointing to the scarcity of mentors, foster parents, and adoptive parents.
Divorce law, too, is ripe for reform in New York State. “I’ve been an outspoken proponent of no-fault divorce,” she asserted, adding that New York is the only state not offering that option. Judge Kaye also urged more consciousness-raising in the area of domestic violence: “We are working in separate silos…there is a great need to inform one another and work together,” she urged. And noting that 50 percent of women who earn J.D. degrees are no longer practicing law nine years out, Judge Kaye argued that “we need to find ways to retain women in the legal profession…The more senior of us in the profession need to make opportunities available to women…Employers should offer flex-time to help retain women…We desperately need a diverse profession,” she summed up.
One never doubts that Judge Kaye will continue to play a pivotal role in redressing society’s ills as she moves into a new phase of her life in 2009 upon her retirement from the bench. “I plan to be there with the shakers and makers of opinion…to advance the quality of society,” she stated with conviction, leaving little doubt that the most vulnerable individuals—be they poor, needy children or women without adequate legal protection—will find a staunch advocate in Judith Kaye.#