Letter from Hon. Judith S. Kaye
October 18, 2010
To Whom It May Concern:
First and foremost, thanks for the challenge of putting into writing a definition of My Purpose, my passion, what is a driving force in my professional life, what I yet hope to accomplish.
As I state the objective of the exercise, it occurs to me that the person "to whom [this] may concern" most of all is me, especially at this juncture in my life. But I guess that's true for all of us: whatever our stage in life, thinking through and writing down our purpose definitely is a great first step toward achieving it.
For more than 25 years, I had the privilege of serving as a judge of our State's highest court, 15 of those years a Chief Judge of the State of New York. That came to a close with mandatory retirement at age 70. On the one hand, it was sad to have to leave a position I loved, but on the other hand, the alternative–not reaching age 70–would have been far worse. Again I was privileged–this time to be welcomed by the great law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, with the prospect that the firm would support whatever pro bono activities I wished to add to my law practice. The firm has a great pro bono tradition.
So what exactly is My Purpose in this "Chief Judge AfterLife"? A quote I always carry with me tells me that the "postpower syndrome"–when your important public office decision-making days are over–should be a passing phase. In other words, JUST GET OVER IT! As it turns out, many former power-holders, instead of looking back on what they have lost, attack their "after-life" with perspectives gained from their unique earlier experience and make their greatest contributions after their days in office have ended.
So my first purpose is to join that group: determined yet to make my greatest contributions to life, to society, to the world.
Though as a lawyer I had devoted myself to corporate-type commercial litigation, when I reached the bench my predecessor Chief Judge twisted my arm to head up one of his initiatives, the Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children. Though reluctant at first to step into such new and unfamiliar territory, ultimately I accepted. (I learned a lesson here too: always you have to be open to new ideas, not be negative.)
Looking back, it was one of those life-transformative decisions that took me down a whole new path: justice for children. To this day I chair the Commission, and lament only that it took me so long to realize how great the needs are in this area and how much we all can do. The years before I now describe as my own "wasted youth."
Were I still on the bench, at this point I would politely admonish counsel to get to the point. Never mind your life story. Answer the question. What's your purpose?
And here it is: Kids. Kids and courts. Keeping kids out of courts–courts are just not a good place for kids to grow up. Keeping kids in school because, let's face it, in today's world education counts, and we know what tends to happen to kids who are suspended or expelled from, or drop out of, school. We call it the "School to Prison Pipeline." Definitely not good. Seeing to it that every kid has stability, someone in his or her life who cares, cares about the child's health and education, someone who is there through good times and bad, who teaches a young man to tie a tie, or gets them citizenship papers, or a birth certificate, or a social security number. Someone who functions like a good parent or family member.
Every kid deserves to be valued, to have an opportunity at life. And every one of us can contribute to accomplishing that. My Purpose is to help make it happen.
Hon. Judith S. Kaye
Former Chief Judge of the State of New York
now Of Counsel Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom
Chair, New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children