In June 2023, Seth Marnin made history: He was appointed to the New York State Court of Claims by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, making him the first openly transgender man to become a judge in the United States.
“I wanted someone who could sit there and listen to these grievances and let the people of the state of New York [know] that our judiciary has compassion and heart and will do the right thing by following the law. That’s why Seth was selected,” Hochul said at Marnin's swearing-in ceremony. “I believe he will lift up this court, add to the diversity, yes … but he would not be sitting here if I didn’t think he was an exceptional, brilliant jurist, that he’s an outstanding lawyer and he will continue to contribute to the great reputation of the New York State judiciary.”
But long before Marnin '92, MA '94 marked that momentous event and made a name for himself within the state's legal circles, he settled disputes at the University at Albany.
Marnin began working at the University in 1992 as he was starting his master’s degree in liberal studies, after earning a bachelor’s in women’s studies and sociology. For nine years, he worked in residential life where he counseled students on a range of academic and interpersonal issues, adjudicated student conduct cases and mediated student-to-student disputes ranging from roommate conflicts to relationship dissolutions. That experience, he said, solidified fundamental skills that continue to serve his legal career today.
“Being able to listen patiently, to be able to counsel people, to be able to sit down, find out what is happening, reflect back to somebody what they've told me, to mediate conflicts, these things have been foundational," Marnin said. Now, he’ll use that knowledge as a Court of Claims judge, overseeing civil litigation involving claims against the State of New York.
Marnin, an Albany native whose father was a CDTA bus driver and mother started a business as a resume writer and transcriptionist for court reporters, moved on from UAlbany’s res life to serve as the director of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender resources at the University of Connecticut. While there, Marnin earned his JD at UConn School of Law, and began his legal career with Outten & Golden LLP, a plaintiff-side employment law firm. There he spent five years advocating on behalf of employees in individual and class-wide lawsuits and mediations.
“I think a theme that sort of transcends my career – whether it was in res life at Albany, whether it was at the University of Connecticut or as a litigator or advocate – I think the theme of these things has been to make things better for people,” Marnin said. That theme continued when Marnin became a vice president for civil rights at the Anti-Defamation League, where he worked on marriage equality, immigration, reproductive justice, hate crimes and voting rights, and filed amicus briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court to advocate for the organization's positions.
“It was deeply meaningful to me to be able to do advocacy like that on a national scale,” he said. “And I think that doing it at a Jewish organization as an observant Jew mattered a great deal.”
He was particularly proud to file an amicus brief in Fisher v. Texas, a 2015 affirmative action case in which the U.S. Supreme Court found race-based college admissions permissible under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Court, however, reversed course on this issue in its historic 2023 decision.
Helping others outside of the courtroom is something Marnin also takes pride in; he has been a mentor to students and lawyers for several years. One exceptional law student, in particular, he has found joy in watching grow into a formidable civil rights advocate.
"I first met him when he was a law student – he is now a successful civil rights attorney," he said. "I find being a mentor is extremely rewarding. People always assume that the mentee is the only one benefiting from the relationship. But in my experience, it really is a reciprocal relationship."
Marnin knew he wanted to be a lawyer when he first enrolled at UAlbany because he saw it as “a way to help people,” he said. At that time, there were no transgender judges, he said. When he received his law degree in 2006, there were still no transgender, gender queer, or gender nonconforming people on the bench. Marriage equality had just become a reality in Massachusetts two years earlier, and the Supreme Court wouldn’t solidify the right until 2015. Because of this, Marnin never imagined he would eventually rise to the bench. “It just wasn't a possibility,” he said.
His hope is that his ascension to the bench “inspires folks to think that they, too, can be judges and lawyers and, frankly, whatever they want to be – that nothing is completely out of bounds.” Judge Marnin’s parents, Stu and Judy (Koblintz) Madnick, believe their son’s achievement will do just that.
“Seth's appointment is a significant milestone for him but also proves that not only members of the transgender community, but also others who feel marginalized can successfully pursue and obtain prestigious roles within the legal system and elsewhere,” said Judy Madnick ‘65, ‘66.
At the Court of Claims, Judge Marnin also will be tapping into some of the lessons from his time as an undergraduate in women’s studies. “I learned how to better listen to and center the voices of people who had different experiences than my own,” he said.
In a way, the bench has been calling to Marnin well before his appointment to the Court of Claims and his arrival at UAlbany. Marnin recalls that the Torah passage read during the week of his B-Mitzvah more than four decades ago was the same one read the week of his historic swearing-in ceremony. It exhorts: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
“I've been thinking about justice for a very long time,” Marnin said.