Judith Smith Kaye: A Chief Judge for the Ages

By Greenberg, Henry M. | Albany Law Review, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Judith Smith Kaye: A Chief Judge for the Ages


Greenberg, Henry M., Albany Law Review


Judith Smith Kaye's death on January 7, 2016, caused a state-wide lament. Flags were flown at half-mast on government buildings. (1) National and state media paid homage to her life and legacy. (2) Fifteen hundred people crowded into Lincoln Center to attend her funeral. (3) From Montauk to Niagara Falls, the public mourned her passing.

Why? Why this outpouring of grief and love and admiration? The reason, I believe, is because people from all walks of life--people who had never met Judith Kaye--sensed that they had lost something pure, something special.

We live in a cynical age. Displays of respect for public service and public servants are rare. The coarsening of public discourse quickens. Judith Kaye is our answer to the cynics. (4)

She was a miracle, the best of the best--a perfect blend of brilliance, compassion and practicality. Our state has produced many of America's greatest jurists. But none stood taller than Judith Kaye. (5)

She was the first woman judge and Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals. (6) She was the longest-serving Chief Judge in New York history. (7) She was the most accomplished court administrator of her time. (8) She penned hundreds of judicial opinions, many of them landmarks. (9) She published over two hundred extrajudicial writings that helped shape the path of the law. (10)

But beyond the achievements--astounding though they are--there was so much more. She exemplified an elevated vision of the promise and potential of public service. She was a great souled human being. And, she touched countless people with her ever-present kindness and grace.

Judith Kaye's life is a testament to the American dream. She was the daughter of immigrants from Eastern Europe who fled religious persecution. (11) She grew up in a small town in upstate New York, and attended a one-room schoolhouse. (12) From such humble beginnings, she willed herself to surmount obstacle after obstacle and became the leader of New York's court system and highest court.

Yes, Judith Kaye was chief among Chief Judges in New York history. (13) And yes, she is gone. But while our state is still lighted with her radiance (to borrow Learned Hand's phrase), we do well to pause and reflect on this extraordinary person and her extraordinary life. (14)

What Shakespeare said of Hamlet rings truer when said of Judith Smith Kaye: She was a woman, take her for all in all. We shall not look upon her like again. (15)

Henry M. Greenberg (*)

(*) Shareholder, Greenherg Traurig, LLP. The author served as a law clerk to then-Associate Judge Kaye from 1988 to 1990. This essay is adapted from remarks made during the twenty-second Annual Kate Stoneman Day celebration held at Albany Law School on March 8, 2016. A portion of this celebration was dedicated to the memory of Judith Kaye.

(1) Press Release, Andrew M. Cuomo, Statement from Governor Andrew M. Cuomo on the Passing of Former Chief Judge Judith Kaye (Jan. 7, 2016), https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/statement-governor-andrew-m-cuomo-passing-former-chief-judge-judith-kaye-0 ("Governor directs flags on all state government buildings to be flown at half-staff on January 8, 2016."); see also Press Release, Andrew M. Cuomo, All Flags to Fly at Half-Staff Tomorrow in Honor of Former Chief Judge Judith Kaye & Statement from Mayor De Blasio (Jan. 7, 2016), https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/statement-governor-andrew-m-cuomo-passing-former-chief-judge-judith-kaye-0 ("In honor of former Chief Judge Judith Kaye, the [s]tate's first female Chief Judge and first woman appointed to the Court of Appeals, all flags shall be lowered to half-staff tomorrow, January 8, 2016, by order of the Mayor of the City of New York, Bill de Blasio.").

(2) See, e.g., Ashby Jones, Judith Kaye, First Woman to Serve as New York State's Chief Judge, Dies at 77, WALL STREET J. (Jan. 7, 2016), http://www.wsj.com/articles/judith-kaye-first-woman-to-serve-as-new-york-states-chief-judge-dies-at-77-1452187787; Tom Precious, Judith Kaye Dies; First Woman to Serve as New York's Top Judge, BUFF. …

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