PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

Judith S. Kaye 1996 HONOREE

Chief Judge, New York State

This summer, Judith Kaye appeared in the backrooms of the criminal division of the New York Supreme Court arrayed not in her official robes as the chief judge of the state of New York but in the simple, business-clothes guise of a New Yorker answering the call of jury duty.

That, in fact, was what she was doing.

Judith S. KayeWhen she was appointed to the state's supreme judicial post by Governor Mario Cuomo three years ago, Kaye targeted as one of the primary goals of her administration the reform of the state's jury system--from the way jurors are chosen to the conditions under which they serve.

The Empire State's system had deteriorated over the years to a point where, by the time Kaye took office, it often was taking weeks to pick a panel for a civil trial, all criminal-trial juries were being sequestered (an inconvenience to jurors that was costing the state some $4 million a year), jurors who were awaiting assignment had to while away their time in rundown facilities, court personnel did little to help make the jury experience less dismal, and thousands of New Yorkers were being excused from duty simply because they fit one of 23 categories of people that were automatically exempted--categories such as doctors, clergy and prosthetic device makers.

Kaye saw the situation as one that was undermining citizen trust in government. "When confidence is lost in the justice system, then everything is lost," she says. "The reason I chose the jury system as a priority for reform is that, in New York State, we draw half a million citizens a year for jury service. That's a great opportunity for people to learn firsthand about the court system and to see something work well."

To make it work well, Kaye appointed a 30-member task force to recommend reforms. With the report in hand, she talked state legislators into making many of the necessary legislative changes. A law was passed, for instance, that reserved sequestering only for juries that deal with the most serious crimes.

She was also able to implement many changes administratively. Juror facilities were refurbished, and jury pay is being increased incrementally from $15 a day to $40 (by 1998). Kaye also eliminated the 23 categories of exemptions, which is the main reason Kaye received a summons to jury duty this summer and was able to experience in person what her changes had wrought.

As a juror--"I blended in quite well," she says--Kaye sat through a new orientation film, brought along reading material to peruse in the comfortable seats of the juror waiting room, and was called for questioning for selection on a jury. She was, however, eliminated when a prosecuting attorney used a peremptory challenge to reject her. That was a disappointment, she says, but she found the overall experience positive.

When Kaye was first selected to the Court of Appeals after a 21-year career as a private litigator, she was the first woman named to serve on New York's highest court. Mild-mannered, congenial and unfailingly polite, the 58-year-old Kaye seems an unlikely agent of change.

But she has been effective as a reformer as well as a calm center for a badly shaken court. When she was appointed in 1993, it was to replace Chief Judge Sol Wachtler, who had been forced to resign ignominiously in a scandal and later served a prison term.

From Kaye's perspective, the appointment has afforded her the unique opportunity "to try to make a vital part of public life work a little bit better. It's tremendously energizing to reach out and inform the public about what we do and help win their confidence in what courts do."

— Penelope Lemov
Photo by David Lubarsky