Thursday, January 7, 2016

Remembering Judith Kaye, the New York judge who put the “family” in Family Court

Judge Judith Kaye
Judith Kaye, the first woman named to New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, and the first to serve as its Chief Judge, died today at age 77.

Though The New York Times notes many of her accomplishments, the paper neglects some of the most important.  They concerned the state’s Family Courts.  Here are some of them:

Protecting domestic violence victims, and their children

It had been common practice in New York – and remains common practice elsewhere – for child protective services agencies to take away children from battered mothers, just because the mothers “allowed” the child to “witness domestic violence.”

A federal class-action lawsuit brought an end to the practice in New York. (NCCPR’s Vice President, Carolyn Kubitschek, was co-counsel for the plaintiffs.)  During the course of that suit expert after expert testified that while witnessing domestic violence sometimes can, indeed, be emotionally harmful to a child, taking that child from the victim of the violence is much, much worse.  One expert said that, for the child, it is “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.”

The section of U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein’s decision summarizing this testimony remains one of the most popular pages on NCCPR’s website.

After Weinstein ruled, the City appealed.  At one point the federal appellate court sought clarification of New York law from the state Court of Appeals.  That led to a sweeping, unanimous decision, written by Judge Kaye, making clear that New York State law does not allow this barbaric practice.  In effect, that extended the impact of the lawsuit statewide (though, as always, it’s not clear if child protective services agencies actually are following the law).

Giving children real lawyers

Although juvenile court hearings are supposed to be all about the children, often the children are effectively silenced.  That’s because instead of a lawyer tasked with advocating for what the child wants, children often get “law guardians” who are free to substitute their own judgment for that of the child.   And that’s often the easiest course of action, particularly when it simply involves rubber-stamping the recommendation of a child protective services agency.   So if a child desperately wants to return to her or his parents from foster care, but the law guardian disagrees, the child is effectively silenced.  (While less common, a child who desperately wants to remain in foster care also may be silenced, and that is equally wrong.)

Of course, the fact that a child wants a particular outcome doesn’t mean he or she should get it. And some children are too young to express a rational preference, or any preference at all. But deciding what’s best is what judges are for.  And they can’t truly do justice unless everyone has an advocate making the best possible case for his or her side.

The New York State Bar Association promulgated guidelines calling for children’s lawyers to follow the direction of their clients – the children - except where the child was too young.    But the guidelines were not binding.  Judge Kaye made them binding.

Opening family courts to press and public

One of the reasons juvenile courts can get away with trampling on the rights of families, and attorneys can provide representation that’s inadequate – or worse – is that, in much of the country, the hearings are secret.  Slowly that’s been changing, and today, nearly half of America’s foster children live in states where these hearings are open to the public and/or the press. 

In New York, that was done by order of Judge Kaye.  I believe the news stories exposing what went on those courts after the hearings first were opened are part of the reason New York City became a national leader in providing high quality defense counsel for families caught up in the child welfare system through organizations like The Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Family Defense Practice and the Center for Family Representation.

And no one ever boiled down the rationale for opening these courts better.  Said Judge Kaye: “Sunshine is good for children.”

Her own family has many reasons to be proud of the legacy of Judge Judith Kaye.  And a lot of children and parents who may never have heard of her have reason to be grateful.