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Judith Kaye dies; first woman to serve as New York's top judge

ALBANY – Judith Kaye, the first woman to lead New York’s highest court, has died.

Kaye, 77, was appointed Court of Appeals chief judge by Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1993, and served until her mandatory retirement in 2008.

Kaye, who had not before served on the bench, was first appointed to the Court of Appeals by Cuomo in 1983. Ten years later, Cuomo tapped her as the court's chief judge. She was known as a consensus-building jurist on the top court, which during her years on the bench continued a reputation that court earned for its judicial activist ways.

Kaye, who has been battling cancer, died overnight.

Born in Monticello, Kaye got her law degree from New York University and a bachelor’s from Barnard College in 1958.

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins this morning called Kaye a “towering figure” in New York who “helped move our state forward on a wide variety of social and legal issues, including juvenile justice, rights for gay couples, capital punishment and creating specialized courts to focus on issues such as domestic violence, chemical addiction and mental health."

Besides being the first female chief judge, Kaye was the first woman ever to serve on the Court of Appeals.

Kaye joined a respected Manhattan law firm after leaving the court, but she was tapped by then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to lead an investigation into questions surrounding then-Gov. David Paterson’s acceptance of free World Series tickets at Yankee Stadium.

In 2010, she led a four-month investigation that slammed the University at Binghamton for relaxing academic standards in its quest to build a men’s basketball program.

A longtime expert on the court called Kaye brilliant and scholarly. “She was about a fine and ethical a public servant as there possibly could be. She was meticulous about being above board,’’ said Vincent Bonventre, a professor at Albany Law School.

Citing cases on everything from press freedoms to search and seizure decisions, Bonventre said Kaye helped steer the court back to a reputation of being capable to act independently of how the United States Supreme Court applies the federal constitution. Before Kaye, the “court seemed to have lost its way and there actually were members of the court who seemed to have viewed independence of the state court decision-making as almost illegitimate,’’ he said.

Bonventre said Kaye was ahead of an eventual national trend with her sharp dissenting opinion in a 1996 case in which the court said New York law allowing marriage only between a man and woman was constitutional.

Kaye was confronted with judges with more constructionist views who were appointed to the bench by former Gov. George Pataki. “He criticized the court pretty harshly,’’ Bonventre said of Pataki’s view of what he believed was overly activist, liberal court. “She confronted that quite a bit when she was chief judge," he said.

Still, Bonventre said, Kaye did seek to have unanimous or near-unanimous decisions during her period as chief judge to, in part, keep the court from having the splintered reputation of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Albany Law School professor added that Kaye’s years as head of the Commission on Judicial Nomination also stood out. The panel provides a list of names to the governor for vacancies on the Court of Appeals; the governor must select from that list.

Before Kaye took over as the panel’s chair, Bonventre said it was “almost an embarrassment” how few lawyers were applying to become a judge on the high court because of a feeling in the legal community “that the fix was in’’ for how judges were to be selected.

“She made it her business to change that … She really turned the appointment system into a merit system,’’ he said.

Cuomo Thursday ordered flags in New York to be flown at half-staff on Friday in honor of Kaye. “She was an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, believed in the fundamental promise of equal rights for all New Yorkers, and dedicated herself to strengthening our judicial system and our juries," Cuomo said in a statement.


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