POLITICS
01/07/2016 01:09 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2016

Judith Kaye, First Woman To Lead New York's Highest Court, Dies

Kaye was an early advocate for same-sex marriage and had a reputation as a reformer and consensus-builder.
Former New York Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, seen here in 2008, died Wednesday night at 77. Kaye was the first woman to hold t
Hans Pennink/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Former New York Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, seen here in 2008, died Wednesday night at 77. Kaye was the first woman to hold the chief post on the state's highest court.

NEW YORK -- Judith S. Kaye, the first woman to serve as New York's chief judge, died Wednesday night, according to an official statement. She was 77.

Kaye sat on the New York Court of Appeals, as the state's high court is known, for nearly 25 years, and there she gained a reputation as a reformer, a consensus-builder and a champion of liberal causes.

Then-Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) appointed Kaye to the New York court in 1983, and later elevated her to the post of chief judge, where she remained for nearly 15 years.

Kaye took the reins of the New York Court of Appeals just as it was facing one of its most turbulent moments. Sol Wachtler, her predecessor, had resigned months earlier following his arrest for blackmailing and extorting money from a lover.

As New York's top judicial officer, Kaye was not only tasked with steering the court in its decision-making -- she also oversaw the day-to-day functioning of lower courts across the state.

New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Judith Kaye administers the oath of office to New York Gov. George Pataki (R) in Januar
Tim Roske/ASSOCIATED PRESS
New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Judith Kaye administers the oath of office to New York Gov. George Pataki (R) in January 1999.

She is credited with bringing innovation and modernity to New York's convoluted courts -- including changes to the state's jury system, which at the time was criticized for granting far too many exemptions.

"If you could get a lobbyist to Albany, you could get your people out of jury service," Kaye told The New Yorker in 2008. Thanks to her own lobbying and other efforts, all exemptions were eventually eliminated.

Kaye's duties as chief judge also included administering the oath of office to some of New York's most powerful officials, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) when he was the state attorney general.

In matters of jurisprudence, Kaye was opposed to the death penalty and was an early advocate of same-sex marriage, though she couldn't get the court to side with gay couples during her tenure.

"This State has a proud tradition of affording equal rights to all New Yorkers. Sadly, the Court today retreats from that proud tradition," Kaye wrote in 2006 in a dissenting opinion in Hernandez v. Robles, a case that held that the New York Constitution didn't mandate recognition of same-sex marriage.

Kaye was most recently of counsel at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, a powerhouse law firm based in New York that she joined in 2009. She had stepped down from the bench a year earlier, after reaching the state’s mandatory age of retirement for judges at 70.

Perhaps Kaye's biggest legacy is still with the court she once led: The majority of judges now serving -- even with two recent vacancies that remain unfilled -- are women.

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