The Pioneering Women Judges of the Third Judicial District

Hon. Karen K. Peters, Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, 3rd Dept.
Hon. Karen K. Peters, Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, 3rd Dept.

This blog entry was written by John Caher, the Unified Court System’s senior advisor for strategic and technical communications, and a member of the Gender Fairness Committee of the Third Judicial District. Under the leadership of its chair, Judge Rachel Kretser, the Committee in late 2016 and early 2017 produced a documentary on the pioneering women judges of the Third Judicial District, which includes seven counties between Albany and Kingston. Nine judges — all of them a “first” in one way or another — were interviewed on camera by a talented student from the College of St. Rose, Ethan Travis. The documentary will debut at a CLE on March 31 in Albany, entitled Balancing the Scales of Justice: The Impact of Judicial Diversity, which includes, among others, Court of Appeals Judge Leslie Stein; Presiding Justice Karen Peters of the Appellate Division, Third Department; Justice Elizabeth Garry of the Appellate Division, Third Department; and Judge Kretser, who recently retired as Albany City Criminal Court Judge. Although, by necessity, the documentary will include only “sound bites” from the nine trailblazers, the entire interviews have been converted into “Amici” Podcasts, which feature an introduction by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, and will be posted each Monday and Friday throughout March, Women’s History Month, at and in the iTunes podcast library.

Photo: Hon. Karen K. Peters, Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, 3rd Dept.


When we set out to interview the pioneering women judges in the Third Judicial District, I feared the interviews would quickly become redundant, with similar questions and similar answers. Rather, the nine women, from a couple of different generations, offered their own perspective on their unique journeys, weaving together a colorful tapestry of the struggle for gender fairness in the region.

The women judges first had to confront gender-bias in their careers. Judge Beverly Tobin, the first woman elected to Family Court in Albany County, discusses the days when she had to be smuggled up the back stairs of an all-men’s social club. Judge Rachel Kretser, the first woman criminal court judge in the Third Judicial District, describes how she fought for and obtained passage of a bill outlawing such gender discrimination.

Such bias was made more pronounced by casual sexism. Presiding Justice Karen Peters of the Appellate Division describes a humorously infuriating battle she had with a judge who refused to call her “Ms.,” and former Albany County Surrogate Kate Doyle tells of a fellow judge who told her to ditch her robes and go home and make babies. Former Court of Appeals Judge Victoria Graffeo revisits the frustration she felt when an adversary persisted in referring to her as his “little friend” in front of the jury. Northern District U.S. Judge Mae D’Agostino movingly recalls how pioneers, including former Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye and Presiding Justice Peters, gave women hope.

Many of the women also describe the necessity of women pioneers to shape the court system. Albany City Judge Helena Heath, the first woman of color to serve on any court in the Third Judicial District, spoke of the need to be outspoken, stating: “If you see something is wrong and it needs to be corrected, you stand up and you say something.” Recently retired Ulster County Surrogate Mary Work expressed concern over a “retrenchment on all the things that women have fought for so long.” And Rensselaer County Judge Debra Young, the first and only woman to serve as a county court judge in any of the seven counties in the district, ends on an optimistic hope that “we just talk about people and someone being the best person for the job, and that we’re not looking at gender, one way or the other, as a positive or a negative.”

It became quite clear that the Third Judicial District has often lagged well behind the state in promoting diversity on the bench. However, since diversity in the district is a relatively new phenomenon most of these pioneers are still with us and available for interviews. The documentary, which is narrated by Court of Appeals Judge Leslie Stein, will be posted to various locations, including the court system’s web page and its YouTube channel. Additionally, the full transcripts will be posted to the Unified Court System’s “Amici” podcast page. They will also be archived at Albany Law School so future researchers, current students and the merely curious can see what the trailblazers endured.

Discover More About Women Pioneers in the Law in NY

Though the focus of this piece is on the women pioneers of the Third Judicial District, there are many more women pioneers in New York law to explore on our website. This starts with our founder, first woman Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, Judith S. Kaye. You can read her biography here. Hear from Judge Kaye and her Court of Appeals colleagues, Judges Susan Read Phillips, Victoria Graffeo, Jenny Rivera, and Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick in our 2013 Gala film. You can also view our past programs Ladies of Legend: The First Generation of American Women Attorneys and Western New York Women Pioneers in the Law: A Celebration, which features discussions of women pioneers including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, attorney Kate Stoneman, attorney Belva Lockwood, and first woman District Attorney Charlotte Smallwood-Cook. You can also learn more about Charlotte Smallwood-Cook in her own words here. Stay tuned for even more about some of these pioneering women in the next edition of Judicial Notice, which will be available later this year.

March is Women’s History Month, but we look forward to celebrating the women pioneers of New York law all year long.

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