Presiding Justice Karen Peters of the Appellate Division, Third Department, was a young lawyer in private practice when she appeared before an old male judge in Dutchess County. She was the only female attorney in the courtroom.
When the judge called her case, she introduced herself as “Karen Peters for the defendant.”
“Is it Miss or Mrs.?” the judge said.
“It’s Ms. your honor,” she responded.
The judge repeated his question, but she persisted in her answer.
Annoyed, the judge shot back, “I said is it Miss or Mrs.?”
Determined to be treated with respect, she recalls that she looked the judge straight in the eye and said, “Your honor, it’s Ms. If you can’t pronounce that term, when you take a recess, I’m happy to come to your chambers and tutor you.”
“I deserved that, didn’t I,” the judge said. The courtroom took a collective breath and the calendar proceeded.
“That was the way it was back then,” Peters recalled in a November 2016 court system podcast interview. “You had to continuously assert your position, in order to move forward.”
Justice Peters, who has reached the mandatory retirement age of 70, and will end a 34-year judicial career at the end of this month, never has had trouble asserting herself.
And she has moved forward from one historic milestone to another.
In 1983, she won a long-shot race as a Democrat to become the first woman elected to the Ulster County Family Court.
In 1992, she became the first woman elected to the state Supreme Court within the 28-county Third Department.
In 1994, Gov. Mario Cuomo appointed her to fill one of the 12 spots on the department’s appellate bench. (There was one other woman on the court, Justice Ann Mikol of Buffalo.)
In April 2012, Gov. Andrew Cuomo named her to lead the court, again the first woman to fill that role.
The arc of her career could not have been predicted from her background.
Neither of Peters’ parents graduated from high school. Her father was a businessman and one of the first members of the Alcoholics Anonymous chapter in New York although he had stopped drinking before she was born. He died when she was 13 years old.
Peters said that her father, a compassionate man, used to tell her that “my life had to speak more firmly than my lips,” meaning that what she did was more important than what she said. “I’ve lived that life.”
The future judge had never known any lawyers before she decided to go to college. She majored in sociology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
However, a lot of her friends were protesting the Vietnam War and getting arrested, and she said she was impressed by the lawyers who were representing them and by the legal system.
At the same time, she was working as a research assistant for a criminologist and a law professor on a project on the family courts in Montgomery County, Maryland. “For the first time in my life, I entered a courthouse,” she said in the podcast. “For the first time in my life, I found out what law school was and what lawyers were.”
Both of her bosses tried to persuade Peters to attend graduate school. The law professor’s advice won out, and she enrolled in the New York University School of Law, which she said had just dropped the rule that women had to wear suits and hose to school. She graduated in 1972.
Applying for a Wall Street job held no appeal for Peters, who found the whole hiring system to be offensive—she said women were sometimes asked what kind of birth control they were using—and discriminatory. Instead she moved to Ulster County, where she practiced criminal and matrimonial law as the only “girl” defense attorney in the county.
After a brief stint in the Dutchess County District Attorney’s Office, she served as counsel of the state Division of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse from 1979 to 1983. She then was director of the Assembly’s Government Operations Committee for about a year.
Eying a vacant Ulster County Family Court seat, Peters wouldn’t accept the practice that a judge had to be “anointed” by a political party. She “campaigned, endlessly” for the job and won.
Mary Work, who later joined Peters on the Family Court bench, had heard before she moved upstate that Peters was “very tough.”
When she finally saw Peters in action, Work recalled in another court system podcast, her reaction was “Oh my gosh, this woman is smart. This woman listens and she’s fair.”
While she was adjudicating other family issues, Peters was raising her own family. She adopted a 4-month-old baby boy from Kolkata, India. Avanti, now 30, has been “an absolute joy,” she said.
On the appellate bench, Peters was “a fierce worker,” said a former Appellate Division colleague, Edward Spain, who retired in 2013. At the same time, said Spain, she was sensitive to the stress and addiction issues experienced by hard-pressed lawyers and judges.
Peters said that she was especially close to the life problems experienced by those appearing before her as a Family Court judge. The legal work was more intellectual on the Appellate Division, where she was particularly proud of two opinions she crafted.
Writing for a unanimous court In Gifford v. McCarthy, 137 AD 3d 30 (2016), she upheld a determination of the state Commission of Human Rights that a farm had discriminated against a same-sex couple by refusing to hold their wedding there. The issues are similar to those in a case involving a baker of wedding cakes now being weighed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In another case, Dickerson v. Thompson, 73 AD3d 52 (2010), she concluded that New York’s Supreme Court had jurisdiction to rule on the dissolution of a civil union entered into outside the state.
Peters also wrote the dissent to a 3-2 ruling in Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York, 66 AD3d 84 (2009), denying defendants in several upstate counties the right to litigate their claims that they had not received effective representation in their criminal cases. The Court of Appeals reversed, adopting Peters’ arguments.
As a “hands-on” presiding justice, Peters has concentrated on administration of a court where 1,835 cases were filed and 1,448 disposed of in 2016. She spends much of her time at the Albany court so that she can monitor what’s happening and be available to make decisions about “what has to be done.”
“I brought some professionalism to the court I thought it needed,” she said, adding that it’s “critically important” for justice to be handled efficiently.
Above all, Peters said she has made “a substantial effort” to boost the diversity and inclusiveness of the court.
The presiding justice pressed Cuomo hard to appoint a minority judge, which the Third Department had never had. In March 2016, the governor selected Sharon Aarons of the Bronx to sit in Albany as the first black judge.
Meanwhile, Peters said she insisted that the hiring of court personnel be fair and based solely on qualifications rather than connections.
“People only have faith in the rule of law if it reflects their communities,” she said. “They just have to,” she said in the podcast. “I have been adamant, strident about this. I will never, ever stop.”
The court was hobbled when Peters took over by five vacancies, another item for which she assiduously sought the governor’s attention. It now is at its full 12-judge complement, although two vacancies will open up with the retirement of Peters and Justice Robert Rose.
Peters made a number of changes in the operations of the court. To make it more accessible to the citizens of a spread-out geographical area, she instituted livestreaming of oral arguments. She loosened restrictions on the use of attorney electronic devices. And she decreed that government officials could not receive appointments as attorneys for children without special permission.
Many employees “were excited about opportunities to see the court grow,” she said. Others “wanted to keep things the way they were.”
In her role as presiding justice, Peters also sat on a five-member board that established court policy. “It was truly a privilege to work with Judge Peters during her tenure as presiding justice,” said Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks. “Particularly in her role on the administrative board, she was always extremely well prepared and forceful in her opinions, with the best interests of the court system dictating the positions she took.”
Peters doesn’t plan to sever entirely her ties to the court system. She said that she will remain a member of its Permanent Commission on Justice to Children and of its Justice Task Force and as chairman of the state bar association’s Judicial Wellness Committee.
She could continue on the court as an associate justice for three two-year terms if certificated, but she said that would be unfair to her successor as presiding justice. For now, she’s holding her options open about what she will do when she leaves the court.
Many women have embraced Peters for serving as the kind of role model she lacked when she began her own career.
“She’s done wonders for women in the legal profession,” said Dana Salazar, of Salazar and Erikson in East Greenbush, although she said that women are still underrepresented in criminal cases.
Peters has been “inspirational,” said Betsy Ruslander, who works for the judge as director of the Third Department’s Office of Attorneys for Children. The judge has “a profound empathy” for the problems of children and families, she said.
Peters said that the situation of women has “changed dramatically” for the better since she was admitted. There are now four women on the Third Department bench, including herself, and no one would think of objecting if a woman wanted to be called “Ms.”
But she worries that young people today may be a little complacent. They need to be bold and take risks, she said.
“I certainly never thought I’d be where I am today,” she said in the podcast. “I never thought I’d be in law school, but every single time those risks were in front of me I leapt, I jumped. I took it. Everything from running for Family Court, running for Supreme, to being a single, adoptive parent. I took every risk and I don’t regret one of them.”