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Mother of justice

John Conway
Posted 3/24/23

Judith Smith Kaye was born to immigrant parents in Monticello in 1938, attended a one-room schoolhouse in Maplewood, and graduated early from Monticello High School, where she participated on the …

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Mother of justice


Judith Smith Kaye was born to immigrant parents in Monticello in 1938, attended a one-room schoolhouse in Maplewood, and graduated early from Monticello High School, where she participated on the debate team and edited the school newspaper. She was the first woman to serve on New York State’s Court of Appeals, and its first female Chief Judge, while declining an opportunity to become the first woman U.S. Attorney General.

Her judicial presence was so powerful that a prisoner once addressed a letter to her with the words “Dear Mother of Justice.”

“In a very real sense, that title befits Judith Kaye,” Steven C. Krane wrote for the Historical Society of the New York Courts. “Throughout her career, she has dedicated herself to the concerns of families and children in and out of the courts.”

Like her mentor, Judge Lawrence H. Cooke, Judge Kaye never forgot her Sullivan County roots, and although she lived all of her adult life out of the area, she relished her friends here, and even returned for her 50th high school reunion in 2004.

Her parents, Benjamin and Lena Smith had fled Poland in the face of religious persecution and settled on a small farm in Maplewood, just outside Monticello. For a time, Judith attended the one-room schoolhouse there, and later credited her teacher, Miss Kitz, with giving her an important head start in her education. When her parents sold the farm and moved to Monticello, opening a general merchandise store on Broadway, Judith transferred to Monticello school, and was so advanced that she was able to skip two grades, graduating high school at 15.

The general merchandise store eventually became an apparel shop, and Judy spent her high school years helping out as a sales clerk, while also working for the Evening News weekly newspaper. She enjoyed working at the paper so much, her ambition was to become a journalist—an international correspondent—and that remained her goal throughout her matriculation at Barnard, where she majored in Latin American Civilization and edited the campus newspaper while also stringing for the New York Herald Tribune.

“Although Kaye graduated from Barnard in 1958 with the ambition of becoming a foreign correspondent, her first job was as a reporter for the Hudson Dispatch, a daily newspaper in Union City, New Jersey, where she was assigned to the society page,” Krane writes. “Thinking that a law degree would enhance her chances of becoming an international reporter, Kaye entered the New York University School of Law. She took classes at night while working by day as a copy editor at a news service syndicate. Eventually, the law began to interest her more than journalism, and Kaye devoted her efforts to her legal career. Having served as an associate editor of the Law Review, she graduated in 1962 from N.Y.U. cum laude and a member of the Order of the Coif. She was one of only 10 women in a graduating class of nearly 300.”

When Mario Cuomo became governor of New York, one of his stated ambitions was to appoint the first woman in history to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. When the opportunity arose to do so, he chose Kaye, despite the fact that she had no judicial experience and had been rated as “not qualified” by the state’s Women’s Bar Association, which was promoting Judge Betty Weinberg Ellerin for the appointment instead.

Other legal groups, including the New York State Bar Association, were much more impressed with Kaye’s qualifications, and she was ultimately confirmed unanimously by the State Senate.

On September 12, 1983, she was sworn in as the first woman to ever serve on the state Court of Appeals. The Women’s Bar Association termed her appointment, “unfortunate.”

Because of age-related resignations on the Court of Appeals— including Chief Judge Lawrence H. Cooke— Judge Kaye had become the third-most-senior judge on the Court by 1986. Following a scandal involving Chief Judge Sol Wachtler, she became Chief Judge on March 23, 1993, the third Monticello lawyer to hold that position—William B. Wright in 1868 and Lawrence H. Cooke in 1979 preceded her-- and the first woman.

When Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, he announced his intention to name the first female Attorney General. Judge Kaye was approached, and traveled to Arkansas for a meeting with the President-elect.

“She ultimately declined to pursue the position, expressing her preference for a career on the bench,” Krane writes. “It was therefore no surprise when a vacancy arose on the Supreme Court of the United States — Justice Byron White announcing his retirement at almost precisely the same time Kaye took the oath as Chief Judge — that Kaye was again at the top of the list of potential candidates. Again, she declined.” Judith Smith Kaye served as New York’s Chief Judge until she reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 2008. She died in 2016.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.  


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