The Road to the Court: Court of Appeals Judges Reflect on What Shaped Their Legal Careers

Official Court of Appeals portraits of Hon. Joseph W. Bellacosa, Hon. Richard C. Wesley, and Hon. Judith S. Kaye
Official Court of Appeals portraits of Hon. Joseph W. Bellacosa, Hon. Richard C. Wesley, and Hon. Judith S. Kaye
Image: Official Court of Appeals portraits of Hon. Joseph W. Bellacosa, Hon. Richard C. Wesley, and Hon. Judith S. Kaye

Oftentimes, legal history focuses on the facts of the case, the letter of the law, and clearly outlining one’s argument, making it easy for perception to become lost in the technical writing. However, this is where the Historical Society’s Oral History Project enters the scene. Starting in 2005, the Society has recorded the reminiscences of some of New York’s most prominent Bench and Bar members, which includes judges from the bench of the Court of Appeals. In certain cases, Court of Appeals judges knew right away that they were interested in a career in the legal field, but not always. Read on to learn about the moments that brought these future judges to become lawyers. For more stories from these judges and other New York legal luminaries, visit our Oral History page.

Hon. Joseph W. Bellacosa (Associate Judge, 1987-2000) reflects on his upbringing in Brooklyn:

…My grandmother was a very, very tolerant woman, who when she cooked a meal, everybody sat down and ate together. So at a very early age I was sitting having meals with — at that time, African American Black guys who were working in the ice business that my grandfather founded that my father worked in, carrying ice into tenements. They sat with us as equals. It was a tremendous value piece that has affected everything in my life. And I’m very grateful to her for giving me that…

[W]hen Mario Cuomo appointed me to the Court of Appeals on January 5th in 1987, one of the things I talked about was where I came from, and how I got to that extraordinary position. And here I was the only son of a man who only got to the third grade and I was now going to be sitting on the highest Court of the State of New York, with an extraordinary education as the backdrop that led to that. And I talked about those origins that I just referred to and the values that came from it. And I mentioned that my grandfather and my father were icemen. A lot of people who came from that region of Italy, for some reason or other, the Baresi, as they called them, from Bari, Apulia region on the Adriatic, became icemen when they came to New York in the late 1800s and the early 1900s.

So at the very next Saint John’s alumni function, a luncheon in connection with the New York State Bar Association, the alumni association, including Mario Cuomo, the Governor, presented me with a bronze set of ice tongs and an ice pick so that I should never forget where I came from. And you’re quite right. I was so proud of that. I put it on the windowsill behind my right shoulder in my chambers at the Court of Appeals in Albany…

Hon. Richard C. Wesley (Associate Judge, 1997-2003) reflects on how his desire to teach history transformed:

…I really wanted to teach history. I just was in love with the American experience and it was a great time to be a history student because African American history was just kind of springing up, and so there was all this new information that no one had ever known about, and there were all these new resources in terms of slave diaries and — I remember reading the Richmond Gazette back in 1868 and kind of really experience and trying to understand what it was like to live in the South during the Civil War and prior to the Civil War, and so I really wanted to do that. I had this terrific history advisor, a guy by the name of Richard Kendall, American historian. I would come in and I’d meet with him about the courses I was going to take and every once in a while the conversation would get around to, “Well Dick, what do you want to do with your life?” I’d say, “Well, I really want to teach,” and he’d say, “You know, you’re a great student but, you know, there’s going to be a million history professors out there.”

I was active in student government at Albany and I had been active in student government in high school, so I was interested in governance of the institution of which I was a part, but I was never really all that interested in national politics other than generally. So he said, “I don’t know, you’re good talking with people and I love the conversations that you and I have.” He said, “Have you ever thought about law?” I didn’t know a lawyer, I did not know one lawyer. I knew the lawyer that had done my mom and dad’s wills, but that’s all I thought — I mean, I knew nothing, and there wasn’t CSI and all this other stuff with lawyers all over the TV. There was Perry Mason, that was it.

He gave me great advice. He suggested that I go down and watch the courts in Albany work, and I did, I went down and watched a couple of night court sessions. Then I had a break and I came home and I watched a trial in Livingston County, a dog bite case of all things, but I was transfixed by watching that process work, and that really kind of gave me a sense of maybe this was what I wanted to do.

Hon. Judith S. Kaye (Chief Judge, 1993-2008, Associate Judge, 1983-1993) describes how her love of journalism brought her to a career in the law:

…I finally took a job with the Hudson Dispatch of Union City, New Jersey, and that was right across the river. The job I ultimately took was not as a world shaper of opinion, writing about Latin American revolutions and ancient civilizations in Peru. The job I took was as a social reporter for the Hudson Dispatch of Union City, New Jersey, which was not what I had intended for myself…

I remember having to go to these women’s club meetings. I reported weddings and church socials and all sorts of women’s events… But it got to be pretty grim, going to the Hudson Dispatch in Union City, New Jersey, and reporting on all of these events. So I got the idea that I would go to law school. And I think actually, I got the idea from reading about Tony Lewis or reading even some of his pieces, and learning that he never went — he went to the Yale Law School but he never went to law school intending to be a lawyer and he never completed law school.

He just went to sharpen his skills as a journalist and to expose himself to legal things and my goodness, he got to be reporting on the Supreme Court of the United States, writing for the New York Times. I thought, “Gee, I could do that,” so I applied to the NYU Law School at night — at the time, they had an evening division, I was accepted… I then left the Hudson Dispatch of Union City, New Jersey and took a job with a feature syndicate here in Manhattan, to make it easier for me to attend law school, instead of commuting over to New Jersey…

I didn’t really intend to be a lawyer. I intended simply to get off the social page of the Hudson Dispatch…

The reminiscences of these judges illustrate the fact that many of the prominent members of New York’s high court were poised to enter a completely different field before making the choice to become lawyers. Though we have highlighted three anecdotes here, there are many more stories to be shared on our Oral History page, where one can learn more about the judges profiled above and many other prominent members of New York’s Bench and Bar.

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