New York's Chief Judge bids farewell

November 12, 2008 5:33:34 PM PST
After 15 years of running the state's top court system, Chief Judge Judith Kaye used her last major speech Wednesday to highlight her concern about children in the court system, rising mortgage foreclosures and the Legislature's failure to boost judicial pay. The 70-year-old Kaye, who must leave office Dec. 31 because of her age, said her 25 years on New York's highest court has been "the role of a lifetime."

But her role as "chief plaintiff" in a lawsuit filed against legislators in Albany earlier this year for denying raises to state judges "saddens and sickens me," she said.

Kaye, who is believed to be the only state chief judge to have filed such a suit, said it is "heartbreaking, frustrating and demoralizing beyond description" that the state's judges have not had a pay raise in 10 years.

Besides presiding over the seven-member New York Court of Appeals, Kaye has responsibility for the state's sprawling judiciary, which handles 4 million cases a year at 363 courthouses with a $2 billion budget. It is considered among the most important state courts in the country, with a national reputation for landmark rulings.

Democratic Gov. David Paterson will nominate a replacement to the Court of Appeals pending Senate confirmation, which would likely be in January.

The issue of pay raises could come up in a confirmation hearing.

The Legislature has generally supported judicial pay raises as long as they're tied to legislative pay raises but neither of Paterson's predecessors, Democrat Eliot Spitzer and Republican George Pataki, would sign off on pay raises for lawmakers.

During the State of the Judiciary speech, delivered at her law school alma mater New York University, Kaye praised steps the court system has taken to reform matrimonial procedures, including mediation.

Under her tenure, commissions and administrative judges have revised rules and forms for not just matrimonial law but also housing courts, commercial litigation and community and drug courts.

In addition, judicial officials have established new domestic violence courts, ordered town and village courts to record all their proceedings, and lifted rules requiring juries to be sequestered during criminal deliberations.

Kaye also will be remembered for the removal of virtually all exemptions for jury duty, which resulted in celebrities, political leaders and Kaye herself being summoned.

Despite her record of reforms, Kaye said the family court system still has gaping needs, with child abuse and neglect filings on the rise and more than doubling in New York City. The courts must use its resources to help the children because their future is "our future, our nation's future too."

Kaye also cited the growing burden on the court system of mortgage foreclosures.

"In New York, our courts are experiencing record-level foreclosure filings, a trend that will continue and likely worsen in the coming months," she said.

Under an initiative begun last April, the court system notifies homeowners of the opportunity for an early conference that could help them save their homes.

As the state's top judge, Kaye earned only $4,800 more than the $151,200 annual salary for her associates on the court.

Several attorneys believe Kaye, first named to the Court of Appeals by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1983 and its first female chief judge, will leave a legacy comparable to its most famous chief judge, Benjamin Cardozo. But they said her biggest mark would be her administration of the courts.

During the Clinton administration, Kaye was on short lists for U.S. attorney general and the Supreme Court but declined consideration.

Kaye, who brought two of her seven grandchildren to the event, usually begins her day before 5 a.m. on an elliptical cross-trainer at the Reebok Sports Club in Manhattan. She commutes to Albany to hear cases.

"It's at least a five-to-nine job," Kaye said in an interview last month. "But more than that, you have to love it. You just have to love it."