When I was 7 years old, I announced to my stunned parents that I wanted to be a theologian when I grew up. It was therefore not surprising that during my four years at Notre Dame High School my favorite class was theology. At Fordham College, after flirting with English and political science as majors, it was only a matter of time for my main course concentration and major to gravitate to philosophy.
After graduation, my father was hoping I would enter law school and was quite unhappy when I was ecstatic about being accepted into graduate school at the University of Toronto as a philosophy doctoral candidate. For him it was doubly upsetting that not only would I continue my career in philosophy but now I would be living in a foreign country perhaps permanently. Both my mom and dad pleaded with me to at least stay in the area and in the end I opted to continue my studies at Fordham University in its well-respected philosophy graduate program.
During perhaps the happiest year of studies of my life, as I reveled in both taking courses and teaching philosophy, I began to listen to the advice of both my dad and my then-roommate and lifelong friend Bill Arnone. Bill, a NYU law student at the time, insisted that I could help hundreds of people in need by changing my career path to law. I can still vividly recall the delight in my father’s eyes when I told him of my plans to embark on a legal career. “You’ll meet interesting and powerful people” he informed me. The following September I entered Fordham Law School with the sole intention of dedicating my legal career to helping poor people.
When I graduated law school (1974), the Legal Aid Society had invoked a hiring freeze, which delayed the beginning of my career there by three years. Finally in January of 1977, I was hired and placed in the Bronx office of what was then called the Criminal Defense Division.
Like most not for profit organizations of similar ilk, the Legal Aid Society of New York City has a board of directors composed of prominent individuals who meet on a regular basis and are entrusted with the organization’s decision-making on the highest level. As fate would have it, in 1977, I had the honor of meeting one of the new members of Legal Aid’s Board of Directors (whose initial involvement with the organization coincided with mine), an amazing lawyer by the name of Judith Kaye. She combined charm, intelligence, dedication and charisma in a remarkable presence. I felt when I met her that I finally understood what my father was referring to.
Judith Kaye was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland and after skipping two grades in high school ended up graduating from Barnard College in 1958. During a career in journalism (Hudson Dispatch) she concurrently attended NYU Law School, graduating sixth in her class of 290 in 1962.
In 1983, when Mario Cuomo was elected New York governor, he decided to fulfill a campaign promise by appointing the first woman to New York’s highest court—the Court of Appeals. He was apparently as impressed as I was, because after interviewing her twice he didn’t hesitate to appoint Ms. Kaye to the bench. Unfortunately, as a consequence of her appointment she was required to resign from Legal Aid’s Board of Directors and our paths didn’t cross again until many years later. In 1993 she made history when the governor elevated her to Chief Judge.
Judith Kaye ended up serving longer than anyone ever had on the court. After developing a national reputation for her thoughtful and well-reasoned opinions, she was rumored to be in line for the position of United States
attorney general or even the United States Supreme Court. She declined these overtures and concentrated on her efforts to revolutionize our New York Court System. And revolutionize it she did:
• She developed specialty courts to deal with mental illness, drug abuse, and domestic violence, focusing on problem-solving as much as punishment.
• She was a trailblazer in the defense of same-sex marriage, writing a controversial opinion defending the rights of gays to marry long before the state legislature concurred.
• She made jury service applicable to every citizen regardless of occupation while also eliminating sequestration in most cases, making jury service much more doable for the working person.
• She extended the orbit of the New York State Constitution, enhancing New Yorker’s individual liberties including the right of free speech and protections against unreasonable governmental search and seizures.
• She created the Adoption Now program.
• She held the government liable for not providing public school students with the “sound basic education” required by the State Constitution.
• She lobbied for no-fault divorce laws and for lawyers to be held to a higher ethical standard.
As bold as her initiatives were, the hallmark of Judith Kaye’s tenure as chief justice will be remembered as her amazing ability to build consensus. In a world of extreme opinions, where a middle ground seems increasingly untenable, she was strong without being confrontational. She had an uncanny ability to engage without alienating. In 2008, due to the state’s mandatory retirement age, she left the bench at age 70. After continuing to practice law and advocating for the causes she believed in, Judith Kaye passed away last week at the age of 77.
She was one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. In a world dominated by people with intractable philosophies, it has become increasingly difficult to keep an open mind. Yet I try to always remember the wisdom of the Honorable Chief Judge Kaye when after her retirement she exhorted all of us dedicated to social justice:
“…we have to remain open to and ready for comprehensive innovation and change. No closed doors, no pushing people or ideas away. This is just too important. And it’s not New York…I have in mind—it’s our humanity, rationality, sanity. This is the time and the place for dramatic change. I know this is true. So do you.”
Thank You for all you have done, Chief Justice. You will forever remain an inspiration.
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