Burstein grew up in Lawrence, Nassau County, New York. Her mother, the late Beatrice Burstein, was a judge of the Supreme Court of the State of New York in Nassau County. Her father, the late Herbert Burstein, Esq., was a prominent international commerce and labor relations attorney. Her sister, Patricia Burstein, was an editor for People Magazine before she went on to author biographies. Patricia's twin sister, Ellen, was a television news anchor but suffered from multiple sclerosis which hampered her ability to carry on. Her younger sister, Jessica Burstein, is a photographer who made front page news some years ago when, as the first female photographer at NBC, she was linked to Frank Sinatra. Jessica later became the photographer for the Law & Order franchise, has had several books published, has had museum exhibitions, including George Eastman House and has recently completed work as the commissioned fine arts photographer for the new Yankee Stadium. Burstein's younger brother is an actor and children's health advocate known as Slim Goodbody. Burstein's other brother, Judd Burstein, is a successful lawyer and the owner of Judd Burstein, P.C. He started off as a criminal defense lawyer in New York City but has now moved into the civil side of the law. He has represented a number of high-profile individuals and companies, including Oscar de La Hoya, Sugar Shane Mosley, Lennox Lewis, Donald Trump, the Westport Country Playhouse and the Office of the New York City Comptroller.
Burstein served as a state senator representing Queens in the 1970s. She later moved into the administration of former Gov. Mario Cuomo as the Chairwoman and Executive Director of the State Consumer Protection Board. Burstein then served as the Auditor General of New York City and then as a Judge of the New York City Family Court.
Burstein resigned her judgeship in 1994 to seek the Democratic nomination for state attorney general. In the primary she faced Attorney General G. Oliver Koppell, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, and former prosecutor Eliot Spitzer. She won the primary and faced former U.S. Attorney Dennis Vacco of Buffalo in the general election. A week before the election, then Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari announced that she was not qualified to serve as attorney general because she is a lesbian. The combination of Molinari's remarks, a strong national Republican showing, and the win of George Pataki in the governor's race, lead to Vacco narrowly defeating Burstein. The New York Times called Molinari's remarks, "gutter politics".
Burstein has since become an attorney in New York City. She unsuccessfully sought the office of Judge of the New York County Surrogate's Court since her defeat in the attorney general's race. In June 2006, she endorsed former White House staffer Sean Patrick Maloney for the Democratic nomination for state attorney general.
She is currently a practicing attorney and an adjunct professor of Political Science at the State University of New York at Purchase College
1994 New York State Democratic Ticket
- Governor: Mario Cuomo
- Lieutenant Governor: Stan Lundine
- Comptroller: Carl McCall
- Attorney General: Karen Burstein
- U.S. Senate: Daniel Patrick Moynihan
- Fisher, Ian. "Burstein Brings an Edge to Attorney General's Race", The New York Times, August 7, 1994. Accessed May 3, 2008.
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