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Q and A with Chief Judge Kaye (Ret.)

 

The Honorable Judith S. Kaye (Ret.), who was until December 31, 2008 the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of the State of New York (the State's highest court), answers some actual questions from teens:


Q. What college and law school did you attend?
A. Barnard College and New York University School of Law.

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Q. What made you decide to study law?
A. While I was in high school, I decided I wanted to be a journalist. Journalism was a male-dominated profession at the time I graduated from college (1958), and the only job I could get was working on the social page of a small newspaper. That was not my ambition. I had dreams of becoming an international reporter, working in the world's capitals, influencing world opinion. I decided to study law because I thought it would help me get a better job in journalism. But as it turned out, I loved the law and stayed with it.

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Q. How long did it take you to become such a high-ranking person?
A. I was a lawyer for 21 years before becoming a judge. I loved every minute of my practice as a lawyer--well, not every minute--but I began yearning for the Bench. I think that happens to a lot of trial lawyers. So when opportunities opened for judicial appointments I applied. This time around, being a woman was--thankfully--not a disqualification. In fact, it was somewhat helpful. There had never before been a woman on the State's highest court. That became irresistible.

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Q. What made you decide to go from being a lawyer to becoming a judge--and what steps did you take?
A. As I've explained, many lawyers who spend their careers in the courts--they are known as litigators--think about whether to try to become a judge at some point or other. I was a commercial litigator, which meant that most of my cases involved business disputes. Then, after 21 years of practicing law, I began applying for the Bench. I describe my success as a miracle--and I am very grateful to Governor Cuomo for appointing me to the Court and making me Chief Judge. I'm very grateful to Governor Spitzer for reappointing me. But you should know that, for a miracle to happen to you, you have to be out there, and you have to persevere. So I did a lot of bar association and public interest work to enhance my credentials.

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Q. In a male-dominated society and profession, how many obstacles have you had to overcome to be respected as a judge and have people look past your gender?
A. At the beginning, there were lots of obstacles, and I worried a lot about the effect of my gender. Given that there were so few women in the profession, I especially didn't want to reflect badly on women generally by doing a bad job, either as a brand new lawyer in the 1960's or as a brand new judge in the 1980's. Today I'm much more comfortable about that. So many more women lawyers and judges are doing great things. They are especially supportive. I think gender, all differences, are still in the picture though, and always will be.

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Q. What is the Chief Judge's salary? Does a judge's salary increase with experience?
A. I'm glad to have the chance to answer those questions, because judges' pay is a big issue today. My salary as Chief Judge was $156,000 (our trial judges average $136,700 annually), and it didn't increase with experience. The salaries of all New York State judges are established by the Legislature in the Judiciary Law, and we have not had a raise--not even a cost-of-living adjustment--since 1999. If you are thinking of going into a career in the law, you might like to know that starting salaries for brand new lawyers in New York City firms are much higher than our judges' salaries. Judges, of course, are all former lawyers, chosen at the peak of their careers.

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Q. What was the most enjoyable part of your job?
A. I loved being Chief Judge. I know this sounds corny, but I would have to pinch myself to believe that I was the Chief Judge. I loved the judging part--studying the cases and the law, and trying to figure out the right result, then explaining it fully and convincingly in a written opinion. And I loved the executive part, trying to bring new ideas to the court system generally, so that it better serves the public--like jury reform, specialized drug courts, domestic violence courts, community courts, mental health courts. The most enjoyable parts of my job unquestionably were seeing that something good had been accomplished--like this website--and working with terrific colleagues.

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