The following is an edited version of a speech delivered by former Appellate Division, Second Department Justice Sondra Miller on receipt of the Kay C. Murray Award given by the New York State Bar Association’s Women in the Law Committee in January 2013.
If I have been in any way a trailblazer my role has been fortuitous, I have been consistently in the right place at the right time. I have "seized the day" and for that credit belongs to my father’s strong direction:
"Don’t be afraid to be different, to stand alone," and
"Remember there are many sheep and only one shepherd."
More eloquently spoken by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
"Do not go where the path may lead
Go instead on a different path and blaze a trail."
My first opportunity to take a different path was in 1950 upon graduation from Wellesley College, when Harvard Law School finally opened its hallowed gates to women. I and 13 other women enthusiastically entered those gates. Were we trailblazers? Hardly so, but we did advocate successfully for the installation of a ladies room and one with a mirror and insisted that a sign on the door distinguish it from the several other facilities not available to us.
But silently, without complaint we accepted many inequalities. We never complained that there were no dorms for women, that we had to find housing in Cambridge, that we paid a fee for the infirmary which was not available to serve us.
At a tea graciously provided by Dean Irwin Griswold and his wife he spoke with genuine warmth, "We should have admitted you years ago. Look at all the valuable pro bono work you could have accomplished—saving your husbands, brothers, fathers from that demanding work and thereby permitting them to achieve further economic benefit for the family."
We did not bridle at that remark nor at other similar discriminations. We recognized there was precious little opportunity for women in the legal profession, possibly some low-level government job, possibly in a law firm trusts and estates department preparing accounting documents with no contact with clients or the court.
One of my colleagues tells of an interview she attended on graduation. When seated before the senior partner of the firm, he explained "We are not prepared to hire you but we did want to see what a Harvard Law School female looked like."
While I cannot claim to have been a trailblazer at Harvard, I did establish clear new precedents. In my first year I rode side saddle on a friend’s bike wearing high heels. In my second year I married. In my third year I was pregnant and commuted from Cambridge to New York City weekly and graduated one month before my son David was born. The graduation photograph of the Harvard Law School women’s class of 1953 published in the World Telegram has been painted and is hanging in Langdell Hall. You will find me in the back row not because of my superior height, but because of my very prominent condition well hidden by those in front from public view.
You can imagine my delight when recently at a reunion at the law school, I noticed a Harvard Law student nursing her baby on the steps at Langdell Hall.
Harvard Law School class of 2013 consists of over 48 percent women. Our present dean, Martha Minnow, was preceded by Elena Kagan, now serving on the U.S. Supreme Court.
I am enormously proud of my Harvard Law School degree. Today Harvard is providing not only a stellar legal education but remarkable leadership, innovation and services worldwide. I hope to attend my 60th reunion this year.
My law career was put on hold following graduation, by the birth of three children, a divorce, serving as CEO of family business, remarrying and thereby enhancing my family with yet another wonderful child.
My delayed return to the law once again presented me with great opportunity. The Women’s Bar Association was being born. I immediately benefited from the friendships and professional relationships of women attorneys in my community. July 19, 1980 was the advent of the passage of New York’s Equitable Distribution Law, radically changing the law of divorce in New York. I worked with my colleagues at "legal awareness" to educate women regarding their legal entitlements. I spoke in libraries, churches, synagogues and schools. Today, membership in New York state’s Women’s Bar Association exceeds 3,000; membership in the Westchester Women Bar exceeds 600.
And once again opportunity presented itself. A woman leader in my local political party recommended that I run for judge, not for a seat on a lower court but for the Supreme Court Ninth Judicial District, a five-county race that no Democrat had ever won in 100 years.
Why me? Clearly there was no one else willing to run. Yet I was labelled a credible candidate and notwithstanding the circumstances I won two major counties, Westchester and Rockland, and the newspaper endorsement. And at the end of that race I had the "fire in the gut." I had to win. After several attempts I eventually won a seat on the Westchester Family Court and three years later won a seat on the Supreme Court Ninth Judicial District, a truly historical breakthrough that surprised all. My mantra for that campaign was: "The Supreme Court Ninth Judicial District is composed of 23 white men and no women. Is that what you, the public, consider an appropriate diversified bench?" They answered no. After 100 years a Democrat, a woman, was elected to that court. That was rewarding.
After six years as a trial judge, then Governor Mario Cuomo appointed me to the Appellate Division, Second Department, where I served for 15 wonderful years.
If creating precedent may be considered trailblazing as a judge, I had my opportunity. I could write decisions of first impression; I could write dissents and sometimes win reversals; I could speak up for those who were often voiceless, often the children involved in bitter litigation.
And there were other opportunities. Breast cancer had become a scourge afflicting judges, associates, attorneys and court personnel. I met with Judge Judith Kaye, Judge Karla Moskowitz, Myrna Felder, Sheila Birnbaum and we formed an organization now known as JALBCA (judges and lawyers breast cancer alert). Today JALBCA has hundreds of members and provides hundreds of mammograms and other services for women throughout New York state.
And another opportunity to "seize the day." Judge Judith Kaye and Judge Jonathan Lippman appointed me to serve as chair of a matrimonial commission to recommend reforms to matrimonial practice and family law throughout the state, now known as the "Miller Commission." It was a vibrant commission constituted by more than 30 dedicated professionals. Several recommendations of that report have been implemented, among them, passage of no-fault divorce.
Finally, after my retirement from the appellate division another tremendous opportunity presented itself. I was invited by Kathleen Donelli, an attorney whom I had admired over the years, to join the prestigious White Plains law firm, McCarthy Fingar, as chief counsel. Among this prominent group of over 25 attorneys specializing in various legal areas, nine are women and the managing partner is a woman. Five of us, "known as the stiletto-5" work together in various disciplines including collaborative law, mediation, arbitration, litigation and appeals. We are dedicated to our clients to provide affordable legal representation, and improving the court system.
I leave you with this thought. Here in this room are many trailblazers, women in the law who can mitigate the evils of poverty, discrimination, violence, and promote peaceful resolution in many areas, who can speak for those who have no voice. I quote Hillary Rodham Clinton:
If there is one message that echoes forth…let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights…as long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace everywhere in the world, as long as girls and women are valued less, fed less, fed last, overworked, underpaid, not schooled, subjected to violence in and outside their homes, the potential of the human family to create a peaceful prosperous world will not be realized.
Therefore, there is much to be done. I urge you all to "seize the day." The rewards will be invaluable.
Sondra Miller is chief counsel at McCarthy Fingar in White Plains.