Democrat File Photo
ALLEN SMITH, LEFT, looks on as his sister, then Chief Judge Judith Kaye, helps dedicate the Smith Family Farm with an historic marker in Monticello, back in 2007.
Judge Kaye's judicial legacy is assured
By Jeanne Sager
NEW YORK CITY For the last month of a 15-year tenure as Chief Judge of the New York State Court System, Judith Kaye had one focus.
Being Chief Judge.
“I didn’t want to lose one second of it,” Kaye revealed in a post-retirement interview with her hometown paper.
Born in Monticello in 1938, Kaye reached mandatory retirement age for the bench in the middle of 2008.
Setting her retirement date for December 31, which would give her the longest tenure of any Chief Judge in New York State history, Kaye said she threw herself like never before into a role she very literally fell into 25 years before.
It was 1983, and the tide of public opinion was pushing then Governor Mario Cuomo to make his appointment to the state’s highest court a female.
“For all the years that being a woman in law was like death, by the year 1983, it was a distinct advantage to be a woman,” Kaye explained. “It was disgraceful for the State of New York not to have a woman on the bench.”
He had two women on a short list of seven total names. One of them was Judith Kaye, a corporate lawyer for the past 21 years, a New York State native, a mother of three and wife of a lawyer.
She’d never sat on the bench before.
And yet, Cuomo told the New York Times during a recent interview, “I determined it was a mistake to call her ‘disapproved.’”
She got the job Associate Judge on the New York Court of Appeals.
“It was a very, very courageous act,” Kaye said. “He took a big risk.”
At the time, the Chief Judge was another Sullivan County native Judge Lawrence H. Cooke.
Born in Monticello Hospital, Kaye lived in Maplewood until the family moved into the village when she was 6. They lived above what is now Gusar’s Pharmacy, a general dry goods store at the time.
She could still remember Cooke coming into the store when she was a kid.
“The hardest part of my job that first year was getting to call him Larry,” Kaye recalled with a laugh. “I’d known him my whole life, the whole town of Monticello knew him!”
Ten years later, Cooke was gone, and it was time for Chief Judge Sol Wachtler to step down.
The Chief Judge’s seat was open, and once again, Kaye’s name was on a list in Cuomo’s office.
Already the first woman on the high court, Kaye would become the first woman to hold its highest position Chief Judge when she was sworn in March 23, 1993.
It’s not bad, she chuckles, for a girl who grew up in Monticello where there was just one female lawyer.
Rose Rosen. Kaye still remembers her name, because it was such an anomaly.
At that time, Kaye wasn’t planning to follow in Rosen’s footsteps. She wanted to be a journalist.
Editor of the high school paper in Monticello, Kaye headed to Barnard College to pursue a degree in journalism. She graduated and spent a year on the social page at a paper in Union City, N.J.
A year later, she was working at a feature syndicate in New York City by day, and attending law school at night.
“I thought if I went to law school, no one could deny me a job on a newspaper doing something other than weddings and church socials,” she said with a laugh. “I had no intention of finishing law school.”
But she did.
She became a lawyer and married a lawyer, Stephen Rackow Kaye. Together, they had three children in three years.
Stephen passed away in 2006, and Judith threw even more attention into the courts.
In 25 years, she’s proud to say there’s been an increased focus on children in the New York State Court system, on jury reform and on the problem-solving courts for drug courts and mental health.
“I began to see the opportunity for real reform in the court system,” Kaye recalls of her earliest tenure on the courts, working on a commission to reform the marriage rules. “We were not captives of the rules, we could change the rules and make them better.”
When she was called to Little Rock to meet with then President-Elect Bill Clinton, to discuss the possibility of becoming the United States Attorney General, Kaye demurred. She visited and spoke with Clinton, then pulled her name out of the ring to return to New York where she could make her mark.
She demurred again when Clinton threw her name into the ring for the Supreme Court just after her appointment as New York’s highest judge became official.
“A person with character would not go after that brighter penny,” Kaye said.
In fact, Kaye relished the chance to stay in New York and make her changes to the court system, to remain on the bench until the age of 70. She relished the last month on the bench, and it’s only now that she’s turned her eyes to the future.
There will be no true retirement for Judge Judith Kaye.
Monticello is in her heart it’s made her “comfortable in [her] skin” wherever she goes, but Kaye won’t be coming home.
She plans to stay in New York City and work most likely doing pro bono on behalf of children.
“They’ve captured my heart,” she explained. “Everyone deserves a chance. We have so many people who have no chance, and they’re doomed in society. We can do so much for them.”
The best option for a child differs by situation, but it’s always some sort of permanency. That’s what Kaye will be doing in her so-called retirement, finding permanency.
“Every minute in a child’s life is enormous,” she explained.
And there are plenty of minutes left in Judge Judith Kaye’s life.