January 7, 2016 / 8:20 PM / 3 years ago

Judith Kaye, New York's first woman chief judge, dies at 77

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Judith Kaye, the first female chief judge of New York state’s highest court, died on Thursday morning at the age of 77.

Kaye had been battling cancer, according to her assistant at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, the law firm she joined after stepping down from the bench in 2008.

She was the longest serving chief judge in the history of the New York Court of Appeals, holding the post for 15 years. Kaye was on the court as the state’s first female associate judge for ten years as well, a position to which she was nominated in 1983 by the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, father of the current governor.

In a statement Thursday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo noted Kaye’s “trailblazing” legacy.

“Throughout her 25-year career in public service, Chief Judge Kaye was a force for progress who had a profound impact on our state,” Cuomo said. He directed that flags on all state government buildings be flown at half-staff on Friday in her honor.

A former commercial litigator, Kaye developed a national reputation as chief judge for groundbreaking decisions and court reforms. She wrote notable opinions on adoption rights for gay couples, education, the death penalty and the right of the public and press to attend judicial hearings.

She also instituted reforms of the New York court system, including creating specialized courts to focus on drug addiction, domestic violence and mental health.

And she abolished exemptions that excused lawyers, doctors and others from sitting on juries.

Kaye stepped down from the bench in 2008, having reached the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70. She then joined Skadden, where she focused on arbitration and youth issues.

Until her death, Kaye also chaired the state commission that recommends nominees to the governor for openings on the court.

In addition, she was chair of the Permanent Commission on Justice for Children, working to address problems of misbehavior in children and divert them from the criminal justice system.

Kaye also was a driving force behind the New York International Arbitration Center, which she also chaired, highlighting the state as a choice for arbitration.

Jonathan Lippman, who succeeded Kaye as chief judge, retired last month. Gov. Andrew Cuomo tapped Janet DiFiore, the Westchester County District Attorney, for the post, with a confirmation hearing scheduled for Jan. 20.

Kaye is survived by her children, Luisa, Jonathan and Gordon, and seven grandchildren, according to Skadden.

Reporting by Karen Freifeld; Editing by Andrew Hay

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