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Farewell to the Chief

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Judith Kaye ’62 decided that her last state-of-the-judiciary speech as New York’s chief judge should be delivered at NYU rather than in Albany, bucking tradition to reach a larger audience and to give a nod to her alma mater. Kaye used her power to the last minute; she postponed her address, usually given in February, until November to protest the state legislature’s refusal to raise judges’ pay. The 10-year salary freeze was Kaye’s biggest disappointment on the bench.

Calling her quarter century on the Court of Appeals (the last 15 as chief judge) “the role of a lifetime,” Kaye led the audience on a whirlwind tour of the state’s judicial system. She began by reviewing efforts to improve child welfare proceedings and hire more judges in the overburdened family courts, before moving on to the state of civil justice, which has been affected dramatically by the nation’s current financial crisis—some counties’ housing courts have seen 200-percent increases in foreclosure cases. Kaye also discussed one of her most-lauded achievements as chief judge, jury reform, calling the American jury system “a rare opportunity to show the public firsthand a justice system that is modern, up-to-date, effective, and efficient.” In 1996 Kaye famously eliminated professional exemptions, compelling notable figures like former mayor Rudolph Giuliani ’68, newscaster Dan Rather, actor Robert De Niro, and even Kaye herself to show up for jury duty. Her legacy also includes a host of initiatives tackling domestic violence, drug abuse, and mental health through the courts. And it was Kaye who broke the New York judiciary’s glass ceiling: The first woman to serve on the state’s highest court, let alone lead it, she left it with a female majority.

Throughout her speech, and particularly as she concluded her remarks, Kaye thanked many of her colleagues, especially Jonathan Lippman ’68, now Kaye’s successor, who was then still the presiding justice of the Appellate Division. Kaye, the longest-serving chief judge in the history of the post, deemed it “a privilege beyond description to labor in the cause of justice alongside the greatest people on earth.”

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