Driven by a desire to serve the public good, Judge Denise Cote ’75 has issued decisions on high-profile cases involving everything from WorldCom to fair housing.
A native of St. Cloud, Minn., Denise Cote ’75 fell in love with New York City when she moved to Manhattan in the late 1960s. She arrived at Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus as a graduate student studying history. Captivated by the diverse and lively culture she found in her new home, Cote immediately purchased a guide book and spent her weekends exploring different neighborhoods.
By the early ’70s, though, Cote saw a New York beset with problems. Crime-ridden and ravaged by drugs, the city was nearly bankrupt. Cote wanted to take action.
“When I came to New York City and saw the poverty and the racial tension and the victims of crime, especially in the poorest neighborhoods, I wanted to use my talents in whatever way I could to help,” says Cote, who now serves as a federal court judge at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. She has spent the last several years adjudicating high-profile civil cases—including a trial on housing segregation in Westchester County and lawsuits against the executives of WorldCom.
Cote notes that she grew up in a family that emphasized public service, and after moving to New York, she came to see the law as an arena in which she could serve the public good. “In the first days of law school, I was just so happy because I felt I had found something I would truly love,” says Cote, who celebrates her 35th Law School reunion this June. “It was thrilling to be learning a set of skills and to have such a high-minded view of what the law could achieve. That really set the tone for my Law School experience.”
After graduating from Columbia Law School, she landed a clerkship with Judge Jack Weinstein ’48. Through that experience, she came to realize that “litigators were just human beings—not Perry Mason,” says Cote, who was invited to moderate a panel for the American Bar Association’s annual meeting of trial attorneys in April. “I thought, ‘This is something I can do.’”
Cote’s first opportunity to make that thought a reality came in 1977, when she joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. Eight years there and six years at Kaye Scholer endowed her with experience litigating complex criminal and civil cases, a foundation that would serve her well when then U.S. Attorney Otto Obermeier called to offer Cote a job as Chief of the Southern District of New York’s criminal division. In 1991, she became the first woman to take on that role.
Cote’s leadership as the head of the criminal division did not go unnoticed, particularly when her name came up as a possible federal court appointee. Following a complicated vetting process and several interviews, Cote was called to the office of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan on a Saturday in October of 1994. He told her that he was sending her name to President Bill Clinton with the recommendation that she be appointed to the federal bench. Even now, Cote seems taken aback by the moment, describing it as simply stunning.
“It’s just very liberating when your only objective is to try to do the right thing,” says Cote. “[I get] to work hard with no other goal but to serve the law and the litigants.”