Legacy of former New York State chief judge Judith Kaye ’62 honored at Law Alumni Association Fall Conference

The 2016 Law Alumni Association Fall Conference, co-sponsored by the NYU Law Review, honored Judith Kaye ’62, former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, who passed away earlier this year. The first woman to serve as New York’s top jurist, Kaye was known for her efforts to reform the New York Court system and for her critical decisions on issues including the death penalty and LGBT rights. The Fall Conference gathered a panel of Kaye’s friends, colleagues, and former clerks to pay tribute to her life and legacy.

“Judith was brilliant, compassionate, a doer, and had an amazing work ethic,” said Helaine Barnett ’64, chair of New York’s Permanent Commission on Access to Justice and a lifelong friend of Kaye’s. “She set as one of the court system’s highest priorities that low-income New Yorkers have equal access to the courts and the legal system.” 

Judith Kaye '62

During her 15 years as chief judge, Kaye established courts that specialized in issues such as mental health and domestic violence, ensuring that New York’s courts were focused not only on punishment, but also on building solutions to problems facing the citizens of the state.

“No other judge… presided over such a time of dynamic change in our courts, in how our courts operate and deliver justice to New Yorkers, than Judith Kaye,” said Judge Richard Wesley of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, who served with Kaye on the New York Court of Appeals. On a more personal note, he recalled that Kaye brought her tireless energy to every aspect of working in the Court of Appeals, noting that she would always remember the birthday of every single person working for the court, and even led the court’s monthly book club.

Judge Albert Rosenblatt, who was also a judge on the New York Court of Appeals and is currently a judicial fellow at NYU Law, spoke about the significance of Kaye’s writings on state constitutional rights. Predicting a potential “state constitutional renaissance,” Rosenblatt said, “The writings of Judith Kaye may not be seen as gems of the past, but as vehicles of the future.”

“No one could write like her,” agreed Stephen Kong, chief counsel for the Economic Development Administration and a former clerk to Kaye. He recounted working with her on Matter of Johnson v. Pataki, a particularly significant capital punishment case. Although Kaye frequently ruled against capital punishment, in this case she held that it was constitutional for then-Governor George Pataki to replace the Bronx district attorney, who would not pursue the death penalty for a man accused of killing a police officer. “She relied on one of her core judicial principles that she instilled in all her clerks: doing what’s right [is] letting the law and the facts, not personal and political predilections, guide your decision,” said Kong.

“Judge Kaye’s legacy is not a thing of the past, but something she has left within all of us,” said Lisa Schweitzer ’96, a partner at Cleary Gottlieb and another former clerk to Kaye. At NYU Law, one piece of Kaye’s legacy, the Judith S. Kaye Scholarship, will cover full tuition for a student committed to working in the area of LGBT rights. Kaye famously wrote an eloquent dissent in Hernandez v. Robles (2006), which denied same-sex couples the right to be married.

“There are many areas in which Judge Kaye was absolutely a transformative figure,” said Dean Trevor Morrison. “But her work on the court in that area stands out as especially important, and we celebrate that and her legacy through this scholarship.” 

Posted November 30, 2016