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One On 1: Judge Judith Kaye Begins Life Again At 70

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It's not often that someone starts a new professional chapter at the age of 70, but that is the current situation for former New York State Chief Judge Judith Kaye. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

It's not often that someone starts a new professional chapter at the age of 70, but that is the current situation for former New York State Chief Judge Judith Kaye.

In her long and influential career, former New York State Chief Judge Judith Kaye finds had the opportunity to be inspired by some great minds – Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis and William Brennan Jr. and hockey player Wayne Gretzky.

Gretzky?

"Wayne Gretzky's statement that you want to skate where the puck is going to be. That is, for me, a life theme," says Kaye. "To be thinking not just about how things are, but how you can make them into an opportunity.”

Surprisingly, the former New York State chief judge is a hockey mom. Her son played and currently owns a minor league team in Pennsylvania.

She also knows the game cold. Kaye and her late husband went to games dating back to the early 1960s, when she likened it to "ballet on ice."

"I think the sport changed radically with the expansion, and particularly with the addition of the Philadelphia Flyers and Mad Dog Schultz. It was a very different sport before that," says Kaye.

After 25 years on the State Court of Appeals and 15 years as chief judge, Kaye stepped down at the end of last year because of New York State's mandatory retirement age of 70.

She’s also received more than a few honors.

"I made the joke if I was at a dinner or anything and they didn't play a video about my years as chief judge I was going to get up and leave," says Kaye.

Now she is starting a new chapter, joining the international law firm of Skadden, Arps.

It's an unsettling time, coming on the heels of the loss of two constants in her life. Her husband of almost 43 years, Steven Kaye, died in 2006.

"It was just the deadliest blow I've ever taken. And having still my life at the court enabled me to go on," says the former judge.

But her life at the court has also come to an end.

"I put the keys to my chambers in an envelope, sealed the envelope and closed the door to my office and was totally demolished in tears," says Kaye.

As chief judge, Kaye promoted community courts for nonviolent offenders and repealed all exemptions to jury service. She speaks about her expanding jury duty with reverence, but also regrets that she was called for jury duty several times but never put on a jury.

"When the lawyer looks at me and says, ‘Judge, it’s an honor to see you here,’ I know I'm going to get bumped off,” says Kaye.

It did not take Kaye long to realize that her actions on the bench would elicit strong reactions. In her first year on the court, she wrote the majority opinion striking down the state’s death penalty.

She then faced the court of public opinion in her own family.

"My Aunt Libby came up to me and said, ‘Judital, how could you do such a thing? You ask about the sharpest criticism, ah! A knife to my heart," says Kaye.

Once, the criticism got even closer to her Upper West Side home.

"We used to get the New York Law Journal at home every morning, it would arrive at the door by seven in the morning. And I remember one day my husband picked up the paper and there was one of my decisions on the front page,” says Kaye. “And my husband said, ‘This is the silliest decision I have ever seen.’ So I discontinued our subscription to the New York Law Journal."

Kaye says there were some sleepless nights, because every word in a decision counted, and there was no changing it.

But there were lighter moments too, like when she had a picture taken by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair. But to her surprise, the picture turned out to be leggy.

"I think I turned around to say goodbye to her when my robe fell open, and as you see my skirt is hiked all the way up, and that of course is the picture that they used," says Kaye. "Within half an hour, I was besieged. People at the courts were giving me a copy of this and asking me to sign my legs. You know, it was just so embarrassing."

Kaye can also make a claim not often made by judges.

"I do wrap a great gift package. I can wrap a better gift package than anybody, anywhere, period," she says.

Her parents had a general dry goods store in Monticello, N.Y., where Kaye, born Judith Smith, grew up with her younger brother.

"My mother made this dress because she used to sew things, like I never do,” she says, as she looks an old family photograph. “And my brother threw up on me. Those are the two things I remember, yes, and continue to hold against him to this day."

Her parents were from a small town in Belarus called Drohichin. Another family from that town would visit the Smith family store in the summer, and their son – Ralph Lauren – went on to do pretty well in the clothing business.

"He told me that he was very nostalgic for his parents and said he would come have lunch with me, and he told me that he bought his first pair of jeans in my parents’ store," says Kaye.

She was the daughter of immigrants, expected to study hard and maybe become a teacher. But when young Judith Smith arrived at Barnard College at age 15, she had other ideas.

"I wanted to be a journalist,” says Kaye. “That was, my goodness, the worst [to my family]. And then I got the idea of being a journalist in Latin America, so can you just see all the impact all of this was having back in Monticello, N.Y."

She got a job as a social reporter for a small paper in New Jersey, hated it, and went to law school at night to try to get on the news side of the paper. But instead, Kaye fell in love with the law.

At the law firm Sullivan and Cromwell, she also fell in love with a man - her husband, Stephen Kaye.

"To meet a man who was both a [New York] Rangers fan and an opera fan, that had to be somebody pretty special," says Kaye.

Not every moment in those early years as an attorney was special, as Kaye managed the delicate balance between work and home.

“I remember some woman saying to me, ‘I saw your daughter at school today, she looked so unhappy,’ I mean, how is that supposed to make me feel?” says Kaye. “People used to say things like that! I hope the climate is a little bit better today, for both genders."

Kaye became a role model for women in the legal field. In 1983, then-Governor Mario Cuomo appointed her to be the first woman on the New York State Court of Appeals. Kaye says at first she was terrified.

"I arrived there fearful that if there was a massive foul-up it would be, ‘Look what she did and what she said and she wrote,’” she says.

Ten years later, in 1993, Kaye was named chief judge, when former Chief Judge Sol Wachtler stepped down after pleading guilty to harassing a former lover.

Kaye was being considered for another job at around the same time - a position on the U.S. Supreme Court – but she decided to stay in New York.

"I just couldn't walk away from that life and that job,” says Kaye. “And I'd say it had the additional taint that I'd be leaving the institution that I loved in a time of crisis. That was not for me."

She says her greatest disappointment is the failure to get judges a raise for the last eleven years.

Now back in private practice, Kaye’s agenda includes getting newly unemployed lawyers to do pro bono work for the poor and helping youth courts, where children who face misdemeanors are given peer review and mentoring.

Kaye is experiencing that rare feeling for someone entering her eighth decade - a whole new season.

"In a sense, I've landed on another planet. In another sense, there is some familiarity,” says Kaye. “I think I have a chance to help people in many different ways. And while I am sad beyond belief and description that I can no longer be the chief judge of New York State… hey, that's life. Get with it."

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