Judith Kaye, innovative judge in New York


NEW YORK — Judith Kaye, the first woman to serve as chief judge for New York state’s highest court, has died.

Kaye died Jan. 7 of cancer at her home in Manhattan. She was 77.

Appointed to the Court of Appeals by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1983, Kaye initially served as an associate judge before becoming chief judge in 1983. She served in that role until her retirement in 2008, when she reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. In 2009, she began work at the prominent law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

Kaye “served tirelessly and compassionately for over 25 years,” said Eugene Pigott, the acting chief judge for the Court of Appeals, according to the Forward. “The Court of Appeals and the entire New York state court system is saddened by her loss. She has been an inspiration to all of us who were privileged to know her, and she will be greatly missed.”


According to her bio on the Skadden, Arps website, Kaye “gained a national reputation for both her groundbreaking decisions and her innovative reforms of the New York court system.” She also streamlined New York’s jury system and created specialized courts focusing on issues such as drug addiction, domestic violence and mental health issues, the bio said. Kaye authored more than 200 publications, including articles on legal process, state constitutional law, women in law, juvenile justice and problem-solving courts.

According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, Kaye’s “most significant work” was establishing the Center for Court Innovation, which it described as “an experimental think-tank to improve the workings of the judiciary, which made New York state a leader in court reform and whose impact was felt long after Kaye’s retirement in 2008.”

Born Judith Ann Smith in the Catskills town of Monticello, N.Y., Kaye was the daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants who lived on a small farm and later opened a women’s clothing store, according to The New York Times.

Kaye skipped two grades, graduating high school at age 15, then graduated from Barnard College in 1958. She worked briefly in journalism before moving on to earn a law degree at New York University in 1962, the Times reported.

According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, Kaye was the first woman partner at Olwine, Connelly, Chase, O’Donnell, and Weyher.

In a statement, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called Kaye “one of the most respected judicial innovators of our time.”

“I was lucky to call her a friend, and the city and state will benefit from her leadership for decades to come,” the statement said.

She is survived by three children, seven grandchildren and a brother, the Times reported. Her husband, attorney Stephen Rackow Kaye, died in 2006.

— JTA News and Features

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