Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, first African American on New York’s top court, found dead in Hudson River

Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first African American woman to serve on New York’s top court, was found dead in the Hudson River. (Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first African American woman to serve on New York’s top court, was found dead in the Hudson River on Wednesday, police said. She was 65.

The body of Abdus-Salaam, a native of Washington, D.C., was found fully clothed in the river in Upper Manhattan at 1:45 p.m., a day after her husband had reported her missing, according to the New York Police Department. There were no signs of trauma or injury on the body, and the cause of death is still under investigation.

It is not yet known how Abdus-Salaam, who lived in Harlem, ended up in the river, or how long her body had been there. Her death shook the New York legal community, prompting responses from colleagues, judges, and state and local political leaders.

Abdus-Salaam, an associate judge on the New York Court of Appeals, was described by Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) as “a humble pioneer” and by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) as “a trailblazing jurist whose life in public service was in pursuit of a more fair and more just New York for all.”

“Through her writings, her wisdom, and her unshakable moral compass, she was a force for good whose legacy will be felt for years to come,” Cuomo, who appointed her to the state’s Court of Appeals, said in a statement.

Abdus-Salaam was born in 1952 to a working-class family of seven children in the District, where she attended public school. As a teenager, she was inspired to enter the legal profession after an encounter with civil rights attorney Frankie Muse Freeman, according to a 2013 news release from Seymour W. James Jr., attorney-in-charge of criminal practice of the Legal Aid Society in New York City. He commended Cuomo for nominating Abdus-Salaam to the State Court of Appeals, calling her an “ideal choice” based on her vast experience.

“Justice Abdus-Salaam has followed her inspiration by serving the public throughout her distinguished career as an attorney and jurist,” James, then president of the New York State Bar Association, wrote.

Before her nomination to the State Court of Appeals, Abdus-Salaam served as a justice in the First Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court, and for 15 years as a State Supreme Court justice in Manhattan. She graduated from Barnard College in 1974 and from Columbia Law School in 1977, and spent time working with indigent clients as a staff attorney at Brooklyn Legal Services. She also served as an assistant state attorney general.

Throughout her career, Abdus-Salaam’s colleagues have hailed the judge for her clarity as a writer and fairness as a decision-maker. Janet DiFiore, chief judge of the state Court of Appeals, said in a statement Wednesday that “her personal warmth, uncompromising sense of fairness, and bright legal mind were an inspiration to all of us who had the good fortune to know her.”

“Sheila’s smile could light up the darkest room,” DiFiore added.

Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam, center, receives applause after her confirmation to serve on the New York State Court of Appeals. (Mike Groll/AP)

In one of Abdus-Salaam’s most significant recent decisions, this summer she wrote the ruling on Brooke S.B. and Elizabeth A. C.C., expanding the definition of what it means to be a parent, particularly for same-sex couples. The existing definition, she wrote, had become “unworkable when applied to increasingly varied familial relationships.” She ruled that “where a partner shows by clear and convincing evidence that the parties agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together, the non-biological, non-adoptive partner has standing to seek visitation and custody.”

When Abdus-Salaam was formally sworn in as the seventh member of New York’s top court, then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder traveled to Albany to honor her, his former classmate at Columbia Law School four decades earlier.

“Sheila could boogie,” he said before a courtroom packed with Abdus-Salaam’s legal colleagues, family and friends. “I read that during her confirmation process, Judge Abdus-Salaam received a standing ovation every time she appeared in public before members of the Legislature. Now, as someone who has appeared a number of times before Congress, I can tell you just how extraordinary that is.”

In announcing his nomination of Abdus-Salaam for Court of Appeals, Cuomo called the judge one of the state’s “most respected and experienced jurists” and praised her for having risen from “working-class roots.”

At a 2015 event in Brooklyn celebrating Black History Month, Abdus Salaam credited her mother’s efforts raising her and her siblings in Washington.

“If my mother wasn’t such a smart and resourceful woman, I might have ended up in foster care or worse,” Abdus-Salaam said. “Although she dropped out of school, my mother realized that a good education would help us escape the poverty that we were trapped in.”

In the wake of the news of her death Wednesday, Judge Jonathan Lippman, former chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, said the court “has suffered a terrible blow.”

“It’s just so shocking,” Lippman said, adding that she was “a lovely lady and judge. That’s why is makes it even more difficult to understand.”

Correction: This story has been corrected to say that Sheila Abdus-Salaam was the first African American woman to serve on New York’s highest court. An earlier version of the story also reported inaccurately that she was a Muslim. That also has been corrected.

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