March 2, 2016

Judith S. Kaye

The subject of our new display, which will be up for Women's History Month and continue through the middle of May, was an easy choice. Longest-serving Chief Judge in the history of the State of New York, trailblazer, role model: Judith S. Kaye.

Judith S. Kaye, 1938-2016

Chief Judge, 1993-2008
Associate Justice, 1983-1993
New York State Court of Appeals

On August 4, 1938, Judith Ann Smith was born in Monticello, New York to Polish immigrants Benjamin and Lena Smith. She graduated from Monticello High School and went on to Barnard College.

While at Barnard, she studied Latin American Civilization. She was really interested in becoming a journalist but journalism was not offered as a major at Barnard. She served as editor-in-chief of the Barnard Bulletin, covered the Barnard College campus beat for the New York Herald Tribune, and graduated in 1958 with hopes of becoming a foreign correspondent. After college, she worked as a reporter for the society page of the Hudson Dispatch in Union City, New Jersey.

Judith decided to go to law school hoping to increase her chances of becoming a foreign correspondent. While in law school, she worked as a copy editor during the day and attended classes at night. She also served as associate editor of the law review while there. In 1962 she graduated cum laude from New York University (NYU) School of Law and was inducted as a member of the Order of the Coif, a scholastic honors society.

She worked for two years at Sullivan & Cromwell as an associate where she met Stephen Rackow Kaye. They were married in 1964. She transferred to the legal department of IBM before returning to New York University to serve as part-time assistant to Dean Russell Niles. In 1969 she joined Olwine, Connelly, Chaise, O’Donnell & Weyher, becoming its first female partner in 1975.

Governor Mario Cuomo nominated Judith S. Kaye to the NYS Court of Appeals in 1983, despite her “not qualified” rating by the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York. Governor Cuomo’s appointment was based on his interviews with her and the opinions of people he valued, who had “overwhelmingly endorsed” her appointment. She was the first woman appointed as Associate Justice to the Court of Appeals.

In November 1992, then Chief Judge Sol Wachtler resigned and a new vacancy in the Court arose. Governor Cuomo nominated Judge Kaye to the position of Chief Judge in February 1993. Her nomination was unanimously confirmed by the Senate and, on March 23, 1993, she was sworn in as the 22nd Chief Judge of the NYS Court of Appeals and its first female Chief Judge.

During her tenure as Chief Judge, she worked tirelessly to reform the courts as well as restructure and reorganize the court system to be more in tune with the needs of society. She took the Court into the 21st century, both literally and figuratively, addressing outdated court buildings as well as the “Y2K” challenge. Judge Kaye got the Court and its staff through the September 11, 2001 tragedy in New York City, comforting families of fallen members of the Court staff. She continued to work with local communities and towards reforms in gender bias and inequality. She forged on even in the face of personal tragedy when her husband passed away in November 2006.

Judge Kaye was perceived as a liberal who cared for the rights of women and families, a protector of the Constitution and the rights given by it, and an advocate against the death penalty.

Of her opinions, one of the most notable was her dissent in Hernandez v. Robles (7 NY3d 338, July 6, 2006) which declared marriages between couples of the same sex unconstitutional. Disagreeing with the Court, Chief Judge Kaye wrote:
It is uniquely the function of the Judicial Branch to safeguard individual liberties guaranteed by the New York State Constitution, and to order redress for their violation. The Court's duty to protect constitutional rights is an imperative of the separation of powers, not its enemy.

I am confident that future generations will look back on today's decision as an unfortunate misstep.
Judith S. Kaye style
Homage to Kaye style
On June 24, 2011, almost five years after Judge Kaye’s dissent, the Marriage Equality Act was signed into law.

In 2008, Judge Kaye retired from the Court and joined the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, & Flom. She continued to be active in the Historical Society of the New York Courts and spoke before various organizations.

On January 6, 2016, Judith S. Kaye, retired Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of New York State, succombed to cancer. In an article from the New York Daily News, dated January 11, 2016, her daughter described her death by saying:
She did not lie down for death. When my brothers found her, she was sitting up. She never stopped making an impact. Like a stone that skips across the water, she left ripples that will be felt for an eternity.
She is survived by three children, Luisa, Jonathan and Gordon Kaye; seven grandchildren; and a brother, Allen Smith.

• Judith Kaye, first woman to serve as N.Y. chief judge, honored at Lincoln Center memorial service. New York Daily News, dated January 11, 2016. Information downloaded on February 12, 2016 from
• Special Kaye, Judge Judith S. Kaye, by Jeffrey Toobin. New Yorker, dated December 15, 2008. Information downloaded on February 12, 2016 from
• Jewish Women’s Archive: Sharing Stories Inspiring Change – Encyclopedia. Information downloaded on February 10, 2016 from
• Historical Society of the New York Courts entry on Judith Smith Kaye. Information downloaded on February 10, 2016 from
• New York’s New Abolitionists: Who are they? Information downloaded on February 10, 2016 from

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