ALBANY — Former New York Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye was remembered Thursday as a trailblazer for women in law who was noted for landmark opinions that helped pave the way for same-sex marriage, limited police searches, and greater protection of free speech. Kaye, 77, died Wednesday.
Kaye was appointed in 1983 by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo to be the first woman on the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. A decade later, Cuomo appointed her chief judge, the first woman to hold that position. She stepped down in 2008 when she reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.
“This was a public official of extraordinary dignity and extraordinary ethical backbone,” said Albany Law School Professor Vincent Bonventre, an authority on the state Court of Appeals. “I don’t care if you agreed with her stuff or not, she was the most dignified and ethical public official you could have — and everyone would tell you that.”
“The court was kind of lost in a way before she became chief judge,” Bonventre said in an interview.
In 1992, Kaye led the court to restrict police searches made without warrants despite U.S. Supreme Court case law that provided greater power to police by asserting “probable cause” that a crime was committed.
“A state court decision that rejects Supreme Court precedent and opts for greater safeguards as a matter of state law does indeed establish high Constitutional standards locally,” she wrote. “But that is a perfectly respectable and legitimate thing to do.”
In 2006, the independent-minded court she fostered rejected the state’s first test of same-sex marriage, finding there was no right to gay marriage. But Kaye’s impassioned dissenting opinion was fuel for the effort that would legalize same-sex marriage in 2011.
“For most of us, leading a full life includes establishing a family,” she wrote. “Indeed, most New Yorkers can look back on, or forward to, their wedding as among the most significant events of their lives.”
“Solely because of their sexual orientation, however — that is, because of who they love — plaintiffs are denied the rights . . . This state has a proud tradition of affording equal rights to all New Yorkers. Sadly, the court today retreats from that proud tradition.”
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called Kaye “a force for progress who had a profound impact on our state.”
“She stood for justice and equality for all people, and embodied the spirit of integrity in public service like none other,” Cuomo said. “Chief Judge Kaye’s passing is a true loss to our state, and I have no doubt that her legacy will continue to be felt for years to come.”
The League of Women Voters of New York State said Kaye’s legacy is far more than smashing “the glass ceiling at our top court.”
“She went on to be a remarkable leader in judicial reform and a mentor to hundreds of women seeking careers in the legal field,” said Dare Thompson, president of the state chapter.
Acting Chief Judge Eugene Pigott Jr. said Kaye served “tirelessly and compassionately . . . she has been an inspiration to all of us.”
Most lasting among her post-court accomplishments is her revamping of the process to choose new judges to the Court of Appeals. Until 1977, the top judges were elected. But in a move to try to remove politics from the appointments, a commission was created to recommend candidates to a list from which governors would choose judges.
Upon retirement, Kaye was appointed to lead the commission and actively recruited the best legal minds in the state.
Kaye, born and raised in Monticello, lived in Manhattan. She graduated from Barnard College and received her law degree from the New York University School of Law in 1962.
Her husband, lawyer Stephen Rackow Kaye, died in 2006. They had three children and seven grandchildren.