ALBANY – In 1994, Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick (See Profile) made history by becoming the first Hispanic judge on the state Court of Appeals. Since then, she has written some of the court’s most significant decisions, breaking new ground on issues such as school funding [Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York, 86 NY2d 307 (1995)], the separation of church and state [Grumet v. Cuomo, 90 NY2d 57 (1997)], and the death penalty [People v. Taylor, 9 NY3d 129 (2007)].
Yet despite the flurry of honors and accolades that accompany the departure of a long-tenured and distinguished Court of Appeals’ judge, Ciparick is taking her leave much as she performed on the bench—quietly, and quick to praise her colleagues and the institution of the court in a way that deflects attention from herself and her accomplishments.
Judith Kaye, Ciparick’s close ideological ally on the court when the two served together from 1994 to 2008, predicted that Ciparick’s stature will grow as time passes and the wisdom of her rulings comes into sharper focus.
“Judge Ciparick is by nature a very modest and unassuming human being,” Kaye said. “Does somebody get just due who never seeks it? Judge Ciparick never did seek it. But I am more of an optimist than a pessimist and I believe she will get her due.”
Interviewed earlier this month at her chambers at the Court of Appeals in Albany, where nearly two decades’ worth of mementos had been removed from the paneled walls and bookcases and boxed up for her departure, Ciparick said she was well aware of the precedent-setting rulings in which she participated.
One was the 4-3 ruling in Matter of Jacob, 86 NY2d 651 (1995), in which she wrote an opinion that enabled two unmarried partners of biological mothers—one heterosexual and one homosexual—to adopt the children they had been helping to raise.
“It was wonderful being able to make that happen,” Ciparick said, adding, “It was good to be on the dissenting side of the same-sex marriage case.” Hernandez v. Robles, 7 NY3d 338 (2006).
In Hernandez , Kaye wrote and Ciparick joined an opinion calling on the court to recognize same-sex marriage. It took years before the Legislature adopted their opinion.
“Also, what’s very important to me is being part of the court that struck down the capital punishment statute and writing the original decision on the education funding case,” Ciparick said. “I feel very fortunate that I was on the court when these issues came up. I feel very fortunate to have, in some cases, to have been the fourth vote on some of these issues and yes, I hope that that’s part of my legacy.”
In all, Ciparick wrote the majority opinion for the court in 322 cases. Her first was People v. Matos, 83 NY2d 509, from Feb. 22, 1994, in which a unanimous court agreed that a robber fleeing a Manhattan McDonald’s was responsible for the murder of a police officer who took a fatal fall as he pursued the robber across a roof top. Her last was on Dec. 18, 2012, in People v. Garcia, 205, in which she wrote that police officers must have a “founded suspicion that criminality is afoot” before questioning the occupants of a vehicle pulled over on a routine traffic stop whether they have weapons in their possession.
Ciparick also penned 62 dissents and seven concurring opinions while on the court.
‘A Superb Talent’
Ciparick, whose parents were natives of Puerto Rico, was born in New York City, grew up in Washington Heights and attended Hunter College and St. John’s University School of Law. She taught social studies and physical education at a junior high school while working her way through law school.
She said she did not come to the Court of Appeals feeling bound to rule a certain way because she was the first Hispanic on the court, or its second woman.
Mario Cuomo, who had earlier appointed the first woman, Kaye, to the court, noted as much at the news conference on Dec. 1, 1993, when he introduced Ciparick.
“If you made someone a judge or elected them a governor because of their ethnicity, you’d be doing the wrong thing,” said Cuomo, a former law clerk on the court. “If you are able at one and the same time to select a superb talent, a truly competent person, and make the point that sex, culture and ethnicity will not stand in the way of a competent person, then that is a glorious opportunity, and I’m glad we had it with Judge Ciparick.”
Ciparick recalled nearly two decades later, “I thanked governor Cuomo for finally giving the Hispanic community a seat at the judicial table. Maybe I brought a different perspective [being the first Hispanic on the court], but I didn’t feel different than anybody else because of my ethnicity or gender. You bring your own experiences, your lifetime experiences, whether they are your familial experiences or your professional experiences or whatever. You don’t leave that at the door.”
In fact, Ciparick said, her personal philosophy may have been shaped as much by her work as a staff attorney in the Bronx for the Legal Aid Society when she was fresh out of law school in 1967 to 1969 as by her gender or ethnicity. She primarily represented poor clients in civil matters like landlord-tenant disputes and matrimonial and custody actions.
“I think my sensitivity was not necessarily an ethnic sensitivity, but I started my career in poverty law, working for Legal Aid,” she said. “So maybe there was a sensitivity toward poverty law that I had.”
Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society, said Ciparick gave voice to the underprivileged throughout her career.
“She brought to bear both great intellectual force but also an understanding of the real-life problems of flesh-and-blood New Yorkers, particularly those who were the least fortunate among us,” Banks said.
After serving in legal staff positions in the court system, Ciparick was appointed by Mayor Ed Koch to the New York City Criminal Court in 1978. Four years later, she was elected to Manhattan Supreme Court.
As a trial judge, Ciparick was best-known for her 1991 decision in Hope v. Perales, 150 Misc. 2d 985, in which she ruled that denying taxpayer-funded abortions to women in a government-sponsored prenatal care program was unconstitutional.
Once on the Court of Appeals, Ciparick became close personally and ideologically to Kaye.
“I spent 15 years with her here so I think I am certainly in her mold,” Ciparick said. “She was so pleased to have a second woman on the court. I was the newbie, so I feel she was a friend, a mentor, a teacher. Such a good writer, such a good editor. I think my writing got better as a result of having her watchful eye.”
The affinity the two felt for each other ran deeper than their status as the only two women on the court from 1994 to 2000.
The two anchored a liberal-leaning wing on the bench, where they were usually joined by Judge George Bundy Smith (1992-2006). Judge Theodore Jones Jr. shared the same ground when he joined the court in early 2007, as did the current chief judge, Jonathan Lippman (See Profile), when he succeeded Kaye in early 2009.
Lippman said the fact that he and Ciparick see eye-to-eye on most cases since he joined the court came as no surprise to him.
He said he and Ciparick have known each other for more than 40 years and both spent many years in the bureaucracy of the court system before becoming judges.
“We have been on the same wavelength for a lifetime,” Lippman said. “Our view of the world is not that different. We both grew up as city kids, she in Washington Heights and me on the Lower East Side. We both worked our way through the court system. So I don’t think it’s that surprising that we were very close friends and more often than not on the same side on the cases.”
Gerard Rath, who clerked for Ciparick from August 2005 to February 2008, said the judge sought to maintain a collegial working atmosphere in her chambers even with the intense workload.
“We would all have lunch together and everybody talked about the cases they were working on. We shot ideas back and forth,” said Rath, who is now with Shaub, Ahmuty, Citrin & Spratt in Manhattan.
Like other Court of Appeals judges, Ciparick talks often about the close-knit nature of the court and how its members, be they Republican or Democrat, male or female, conservative or liberal, upstaters or downstaters, develop personal ties.
“There are no political divides in terms of our caring for each other,” Ciparick said. “There are no political or social or ideological divides. It may be in our decisions, but not our personal lives.”
As with any 70-year-old who has spent nearly 20 years at the same job, Ciparick has experienced many of life’s milestones, good and bad, at her workplace. Her father and husband both died during her tenure on the court. She has watched her daughter, a professional singer and performer, grow up. And she has become a grandmother.
She said she spent her worst day as a judge, Sept. 11, 2001, watching with her horrified colleagues on a television in Kaye’s chambers in Albany as the terror attacks on the World Trade Center unfolded.
“We all gathered in the conference room. And Judge George Bundy Smith, who is a very religious man—he is a deacon of his church, and he had a Bible—he brought it in and it was incredible. He said a prayer. And we found ourselves—Jews and Catholics and Protestants—just holding each other’s hands. It was just sort of spontaneous and we all prayed with him.”
In 2008, Ciparick said she felt a personal disappointment when the Commission on Judicial Nomination submitted a list of seven names to Governor David Paterson from which he had to select a nominee to succeed Kaye as chief judge.
Ciparick had been reappointed to the court earlier in 2008 by Governor Eliot Spitzer when her first 14-year term ended.
But to the surprise of many, Ciparick, the senior associate judge on the court since 2006, did not make the list of finalists for chief judge. The list did include Lippman, then the presiding justice of the Appellate Division, First Department, and two other Court of Appeals judges, Eugene Pigott Jr. (See Profile) and Jones.
“That’s the part that was most difficult, not having made that list,” Ciparick said. “That was very painful. All my colleagues know that was very painful and it was very shocking.”
Lippman, who was Paterson’s selection to succeed Kaye, said he commiserated with Ciparick over a glass of wine the night the list came out. Lippman said Ciparick never displayed any jealously toward him after she was passed over. Ciparick, in fact, spoke on Lippman’s behalf at the subsequent meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee that considered his confirmation.
“The great bonus of it all is that we got to serve after we talked about it for so many years,” Lippman said. “We got to serve with each other for four years and that is something we both feel is a blessing.”
Ciparick said it has taken four years for another bright side to emerge from the nominating commission’s slight of her in 2008.
Criticized by Paterson for giving him an all-male list of candidates, six of whom were white, Paterson appointed Kaye as chairwoman of the commission in 2009. The makeup of the first list the commission proposed to Governor Andrew Cuomo under Kaye’s committee to fill the seat being vacated by Ciparick contained the names of four women, three Hispanics, an openly gay male and an Asian-American.
Ciparick said she talked to all of the women who ultimately made the list of nominees and all of the Hispanics to encourage them to pursue the opening on the court.
Kaye campaigned hard at public forums, bar groups and other gatherings where potential candidates might be found to promote a diverse pool from which to choose Ciparick’s replacement.
“I really think that what happened with that  list motivated Judith to be so expansive and to try to get as many people as possible and diverse a list as possible now,” Ciparick said. “So maybe it had a good result.”
Kaye said she was acutely aware of Ciparick’s disappointment in 2008, but she credited her with accepting an outcome that could not be changed and looking ahead.
“One thing in particular she is so good at is not looking back but looking forward,” Kaye said.
Ciparick said she will join a law firm in midtown Manhattan, though she declined to say which one, where she expects to act as a mentor to younger attorneys in the way Kaye has as counsel to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
Ciparick said she will also, like Kaye, be involved in public service.
Whatever she does, Ciparick said she intends to stay active in the law.
“I’m not ready to ‘retire retire,’” she said.
As to the constitutional rule that requires judges to step down from the court at the end of the year in which they turn 70, she said she can see both advantages and disadvantages.
“I think it’s good to have new blood,” she said. “I think it’s good to have new people and I think it’s good to create opportunities for younger people to come on the bench. I think that makes for a healthy court. There comes a point where people stay too long.”
On the other hand, Ciparick said she looks at it differently from a purely selfish standpoint.
“If someone said I could stay, I would love to stay,” she said. “If I could stay for another few years, I would stay in a heartbeat.”
@Joel Stashenko can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.