If we could reverse-engineer Judith Kaye, what ingredients would we find? I’m no scientist, but I am her daughter. So, employing Madeline Kahn’s analytical scheme in her unforgettable 1976 SNL spoof on the song “M-O-T-H-E-R” (why were my brothers and I, at ages 7, 9 and 11 awake and watching this…with our parents?!):
“M” is for Monticello, the Borscht Belt town from which my first-generation-American mother hails, where she lived on a farm, skipped right from kindergarten to third grade in a one-room schoolhouse and worked in her parents’ dry goods store from well before a legally-permissible age. There is no doubt in my mind that my mother’s unbelievable work ethic, compassion, humility (see “H,” infra), creativity and practicality derive directly from her upbringing in that town. “M” is also for Mellifluous, Magnanimous and “Mother of Justice” (as one prisoner addressed her in correspondence).
“O” is for Optimism. My mother has often said that the only way to assure failure is to stop trying. Optimism about her own abilities and ideas and the capabilities and motivations of others has fueled my mother’s efforts to overcome seemingly entrenched hurdles, to develop the common law and to create institutions—such as the Commercial Division, the Children’s Centers in the Courts and the New York International Arbitration Center—and to transform others, such as jury service.
“T” is for Tenacity and Tirelessness. Proof of that? Well, it’s res ipsa loquitur (you mean the work-week only has five days?). When she was chief judge, and thus at the helm of both the New York State court system and the Court of Appeals, she famously quipped that each job took about 80 percent of her time. And she gladly gave it.
“H” is for Humility (although she did refuse until very recently to get a Senior Citizen MetroCard), Honesty, and also Hockey. Sure, my mother venerates Cardozo and Brennan, but she also lives by the words of the great Gretzky: “I always want to skate where the puck is going to be.”
“E” is for Education, which was key to my mother’s achievement of her dreams and which she has championed with her School-Justice Partnership Task Force as a key for keeping kids out of the courts. “E” is also for Engagement, on a cellular level, with the practice of law and justice. She and my father, who shared this passion, even went to court on vacation in foreign countries. It was a special treat to find a trial or argument to sit in on, regardless of whether they understood the language being spoken.
“R” is for Respectfulness and Rationality. Aside from the obvious human virtues of these characteristics, my mother’s respect for others’ thoughts and opinions and her intensely practical thinking (“does it make sense” is a test that any argument must pass), makes her jurisprudence thoroughly compelling, cohesive and fair.
“R” is decidedly not, however, for Retiring. This concept is not in my mother’s vocabulary, much less her DNA. I mean, seriously, who retires to Skadden Arps?
Luisa K. Hagemeier is a partner at Putney Twombly Hall & Hirson.