A judicial trailblazer for women, retiring Justice Karen Peters reflects

Justice Karen Peters. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

After 34 years on the bench, Karen Peters, the first woman to be appointed presiding justice of Appellate Division of the Third Department of state Supreme Court, is retiring. Prior to her appointment to the Third Department (which encompasses 28 counties, including Ulster) by Mario Cuomo in 1994 (she was named presiding justice by Mario’s son, Andrew Cuomo, in 2012), Peters in 1992 became the first woman elected to the Supreme Court’s Third Department.

In her career, she broke a glass ceiling and also garnered numerous awards. Neither of her parents ever finished high school.

After graduating in 1972 from law school at NYU, she had a private practice in New Paltz, focused on criminal defense and family and matrimonial law. At the time, she was the only female defense lawyer in Ulster County. She also taught at SUNY New Paltz, creating curricula in civil rights and civil liberties, sex discrimination in the law and criminal law. She also worked as assistant district attorney in Dutchess County, and then held two jobs in state government.

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In 1983, she ran for Ulster County Family Court judge and won, the first woman to do so.

Kathleen Carey Mihm, who served two terms in the county legislature before becoming a deputy elections commissioner, campaigned for Peters. “She was very hardworking,” Mihm recalled. “She was with you rain or shine and always very supportive of folks walking with her. She was no-nonsense and very smart. Whenever someone tried to say something disparaging, she didn’t rise to the bait. She was tremendous. She kept the peace and served Ulster County very well.”

A decade later, Peters won election to state Supreme Court. A longtime Woodstock resident, she was a single parent who raised a son whom she adopted as a baby from India.

You grew up on Long Island and were the first person in your family to complete college. What did you learn from your parents?

My father, who died when I was 13, was a fascinating man and a great businessman. He was a compassionate person who was a founding member of the AA chapter in New York City in the 1940s .… He taught me my life had to speak more firmly than my lips. What you did was more important than what you said.

How did you get interested in law?

I got involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement when I was in college in Washington, D.C. I met my first lawyer, who was representing my friends, and was fascinated to see what a lawyer did. I saw how important it was that people have representation.

What brought you upstate?

While I was in law school, my favorite law professor died of a heart attack and was buried in the Woodstock Artists’ Cemetery. I had never been north of Westchester County but came to the funeral and while standing in the cemetery decided this is where I wanted to live.

In another interview, you talk about how one of the challenges in being appointed to the Third Department’s Appellate Division was the lack of a convenient women’s bathroom. The anecdote reminded me of the scene in Hidden Figures where the female African-American engineer at NASA has to walk an enormous distance to use the “colored” bathroom, taking up so much time her boss eventually notices her absence. Was it this kind of imposition that was most annoying?

A lot of struggles [regarding civil and gender rights] over time have been about public accommodation. It was so extraordinary that there was a barrier. When I ran for family court and got elected, there was one bathroom for the two family court judges, who were both men. To everyone’s surprise, after I got elected the remaining male judge easily agreed that we share the bathroom. When I got appointed to the appellate division, there was one bathroom next to the conference room used by the judges, who were all men, so I had to go upstairs to the women’s bathroom and listen to women lawyers who I would be hearing talk about their cases. I convinced the presiding judge to put a lock on the door of the bathroom near the conference room so I could use it too.

What led you to run for Family Court? It must have been a long shot that you would be elected, as the first woman judge.

When I was working at the government operations committee for assemblyman Mel Zimmer, I was at a women’s bar convention and some of my women lawyer friends told me to run for family court judge. At the time, both judges were white men and Republicans. My friends said, “You’ll never win but you can help raise the public’s awareness about family-related concerns.” I told Mel, “I’ll never win but it will be great experience.” To everyone’s surprise, I won.

How did you win?

The other candidate was the retiring judge’s law clerk and he thought it was a shoe-in. I went everywhere, to strawberry festivals, to the plumbers’ and electrical workers’ union meetings and told people what I wanted to do for Family Court, how I wanted to improve efficiency and make the court more responsive [to the public], and they listened.

What changes did you bring to the family court?

We opened a children’s center, so that when parents, who were often emotional and angry, came into the courtroom, the children didn’t have to come into the court with them. They had a place to go and were attended by competent adults. I also instituted a program whereby children would get a book when they came into the courtroom. Often there’s a big candy dish, which I thought was inappropriate, so I invested in a number of books and gave one to each child. In some cases it was the first book the child had ever owned.

We also sat down with the commissioners of social services and mental health and started the Pride Program, which provided intensive services for crack-addicted mothers. In the process [of being on the court], I adopted my son from India, which made me even more empathetic to the struggles of the families I interacted with.

It must have been difficult working as a judge and bringing up a child single-handedly.

I parented and I worked. I had to give up social activities, but that was OK, because it was the commitment I made.

How did you get elected to the Supreme Court? Again, you were the first woman to do so.

The Supreme Court judges are nominated at a convention convening in Albany. You have to have judicial delegates vote for you, and Albany had the most delegates. I didn’t have enough votes, so I had someone nominate me from the floor. I staged it — I was wearing a black jacket with bright turquoise lapels standing in the back of the room with a couple hundred people and the chair was very upset when I asked if I could be heard for a moment. He was afraid there would be ruckus, but instead I gave remarks withdrawing my name and talking about the need for party unity, how it was important everyone work together and that I was sure in the future all the delegates attending would see the need for diversity — I didn’t use that word. I said I wasn’t going to create chaos, but I wasn’t going away, and it worked because the next year a number of delegates remembered I had made a strong statement but didn’t create chaos. When I was nominated and ran, I created a committee and had a lot of people help me out. My son was five and he handed out dog biscuits while I handed out literature. You have to take the risk and work it.

You were then appointed to the appellate division by Mario Cuomo. What kinds of cases have you heard? 

Workers compensation, unemployment compensation, challenges to state agency regulations, a lot of criminal cases, from murder to robbery to rape, child custody, car accidents, medical malpractice, real property rights. One of the shifts we’ve seen is an increase in litigation concerning gender fairness. Also an expansion of the right to counsel at the arraignment, not just the trial. Upstate is a large geographical area and often people don’t have a lawyer at their arraignment. Recently there’s been a case to expand the right to counsel and funding for this representation.

Five years ago, Andrew Cuomo appointed you presiding judge. What is the role of presiding judge?

I am the person responsible for managing the appeals court, which now consists of 12 judges. I hear appeals from all 28 counties … I raised concerns in areas where I felt we had to make a change. One concerns lawyer discipline — if you want to hire a doctor you can go on the Department of Health’s website and see if he or she has been disciplined. You could do that with lawyers, except you couldn’t find his or her name unless you knew what locality the person started his or her practice in, since each geographical department had its own website. We created a statewide database, so now when you search a name, you can easily find it.

As presiding judge, what have your priorities been?

I believe that courts should reflect their community and diversity so people will have confidence in the rule of law. I’ve tried very hard to make that belief a reality. One of the changes I made when I became presiding judge was that I made sure individuals who we hired at every level, from someone in the mailroom to a lawyer, were recruited fairly. … The second thing I did was to bring the cases to the people, by having simultaneous video-casts, so that everybody who can get on a computer when we are in court can push a button and watch us hear a case.

Since you’ve been appointed, has there been more diversity on the bench?

For most of its history, only white men have served on the Appellate Division of the Third Department, but recently governor Cuomo appointed Sharon Aarons, who is a person of color from the Bronx. I’m hoping there will be a lot more diversity soon.

Any plans for your retirement?

I would like the opportunity to teach. I’m headed to South Africa this summer, to teach at a judicial institute for judges from different countries in Africa. I love the arts and sit on the board of the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild and I’m a passionate potter.

Which part of your legacy are you most proud of?

I’m hoping that what I achieved is providing a roadmap for other people who want to move forward in their careers, even if they feel they don’t know anybody important and aren’t related to somebody powerful and even if their parents didn’t graduate from high school. I’m hoping they will say, “Hey, look what she did. I can do that, too.” If people follow the path I’ve groomed, then I’ve achieved my goal.

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