Thursday, January 7, 2016

Thinking of Aunt Judy: RIP Judith S Kaye

One of the last times, I saw Aunt Judy we sang “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain and Tennile at her daughter’s birthday party.  She loved music.  

“Mamma Mia?” her husband said as we got in the car to drive home from Seder dinner, playing the soundtrack all the way back to the city. A legal giant who was the first woman to serve as New York's chief judge, who also adored Judy Garland and show tunes, who could not adore Judith Kaye?

Aunt Judy officiating our wedding in 2001.
aunt judy and her brother at our wedding. 

She was there to marry us, seeing this was something everyone had to right to experience, with all its glory and difficulties.  Perhaps her finest moment as chief judge of New York’s court of appeals came as the dissenting voice when the court rejected gay marriage in 2006, etching her mark with a forward leaning statement.   

The Times reported:

“The court's chief judge, Judith S. Kaye, issued a sharp dissent, warning that future generations would look back at yesterday's decision as "an unfortunate misstep."
She said that barring gay marriage was tantamount to barring interracial marriage, as laws formerly did.

"The long duration of a constitutional wrong cannot justify its perpetuation, no matter how strongly tradition or public sentiment might support it," Judge Kaye wrote in a 27-page opinion, in which she was joined by Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick.”

And she was right.

We knew her as Aunt Judy, meeting her for Seder dinners or quiet afternoons to share Chinese food, to talk about public policy, governors, music and the constitution.

"What can we do?  We have to do something" she implored on the phone, sympathizing with the Black Lives Matter Movement.  "People are losing faith."

Never an elitist, she took public transportation when traveling for legal work.  

She adored her grand kids, bestowing gifts on every visit. She loved Harold and the Purple Crayon, reveling on the idea that we can all draw the lines of our own realities.

A favorite of aunt judy's

Her brother was Caroline’s dad.  Last year, we all looked at albums together at the house.  We talked about family.  She reflected on a gift we gave her from Istanbul after our wedding.  And we laughed. She loved being with family. 

“Ben, promise me you will start studying the New York constitution,” she implored me the last time we talked. 

We had often talked about what our rights and responsibilities are in this democracy. 

When I was arrested by plain closed officers during the Republican Convention and my whereabouts unknown to the family, her office helped get me out.

The only time I ever saw her cry was after her husband Stephen died.  I visited her as she sat shiva.  Everyone, from the former Governor to her expansive family, had already dropped by.  “Ben, what am I going to do in this big house?”  she wondering looking around the home she had shared with her beloved husband.

Outside the spotlight, she was quiet and kind.  We drove back from Long Island after visiting Uncle Tom for the last time as cancer gripped him.  Judy talked about her challenges with it, courageous and ever ready to get back to work.

In the years to follow she helped me to set up an interview with the Center for Court Innovation in Red Hook, helping me connect with the Attorney General’s office when the community gardens were in danger, and advised my friend’s  counsel in court.  She spoke up for youth and maintained a role as an advocate.  She always believed courts had to be more accessible to regular people, coping with regular problems. 

Last summer after we returned from Spain, we met up with Aunt Judy.  We ended up walking to Central Park for lunch and then off to Lincoln Center.  It was the best day we spent with her ever.  We tried to see some music, but the show wasn’t for kids.  So we just sat looking at the sky, laughing about things.  Next time, we’ll see music, she declared.  Next time.  There wouldn’t be a next time. But I’m glad we got that day together.  It was the best day ever with her ever.

On the way back home.  Last photo of aunt Judy. 


  1. Simply beautiful, Ben. She was a giant who touched our lives directly with her work.

    1. I had no idea that this remarkable woman was your Aunt .. her rulings as Judge affected not only positively lesbian and gay people but also renters ..I just bet she was proud of you Ben!

  2. Ben, just skimming this simultaneously fills me with such immense pride and joy, and profound sadness...thank you for writing so beautifully...I'm going to sit down a little later and devour this word for word. See you in a few days.