You always knew when Judge Judith Kaye was in the house.
When rumors swirled that she was about to enter a room, necks craned, heads turned and the conversation swirled. As she strode, the sea of people before her respectfully parted to clear a path.
And when she spoke, you could hear a pin drop.
The reverence bestowed on the state's first female chief judge, who died Thursday of cancer at the age of 77, was earned by decades of dedication to improving the legal system and its impact on the lives of children, the poor and the oppressed.
Rare is the New Yorker today who is untouched by her policies, her perseverance and her wisdom.
During her 15 years as the head of New York's court system, Kaye initiated significant reforms to modernize the courts, incorporating new technologies to make it more efficient and easier to access.
She reformed and broadened the jury service process to protect the citizens' right to a jury of their peers, ensuring that the same people didn't get selected for jury duty over and over again, that they didn't serve overly long and that they were adequately compensated for their time.
A lifelong advocate for civil rights, she was an early leader in the fight to legalize same-sex marriage in New York, comparing it to interracial marriage. In a scathing 27-page minority opinion in a 2006 case, she declared that the "long duration of a constitutional wrong cannot justify its perpetuation, no matter how strongly tradition or public sentiment might support it." Five years later, New York became the seventh state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage.
During her tenure as chief judge, she helped reinvent the judicial system's traditional approach to dealing with social problems. In promoting specialty courts to deal with such issues as domestic violence and drug abuse, she helped open the door for counseling and treatment as alternatives to incarceration.
As the chief administrator of the state’s vast court system, she pushed for local solutions to quality-of-life crimes such as prostitution and panhandling, as well as worked on behalf of the mentally ill and those with other social issues.
Perhaps her greatest impact could be found in her work with children. Through her leadership of the Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children and on other initiatives, Kaye helped reduce the time children spent waiting for adoption, secured overdue reforms in the foster care system, and ensured the enforcement of early intervention infant and childhood program mandates.
Many New Yorkers might not have even heard of Judge Judith Kaye. But their lives have all been touched by her.
Her death leaves a void. Her life leaves a legacy.