Sheila Abdus-Salaam

Pioneering Black Woman Judge Found Dead in NYC’s Hudson River

As first Black woman on New York's Court of Appeals, Sheila Abdus-Salaam was called a 'trailblazing' leader in the state legal system

by Madison J. Gray, April 12, 2017

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Sheila Abdus-Salaam

Court of Appeals judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam during her swearing-in ceremony at the New York Court of Appeals in Albany, N.Y., in 2013. AP / Hans Pennink

Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first African-American woman to be appointed to the New York State Court of Appeals was found dead, floating on the shore of New York’s Hudson River on Wednesday, the New York Daily News reported.

The judge’s body was discovered fully clothed by witnesses on the Upper Manhattan side of the river just before 2 p.m., just about a mile from her home in Harlem. Her husband had reported her missing earlier in the day and was brought in to identify her.

The NYPD said there were no signs of trauma or any evidence that would indicate foul play. It was unclear what the cause of death was and police say the investigation is ongoing.

Abdus-Salaam, 65, grew up in a poor family of seven children in Washington, D.C. She said she was inspired to go into the legal field by watching episodes of “Perry Mason” on television as a child.

A graduate of Barnard College who received her J.D. from the Columbia University Law School, where she had been a classmate of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. She was first appointed to the appellate court by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2013. Before that, she served on Manhattan Supreme Court for 14 years and had been an attorney with the New York City Law Department and the city Office of Labor Services. In addition to being the first Black female appellate judge in New York state, she was also America’s first female Muslim judge.

“As the first African-American woman to be appointed to the State’s Court of Appeals, she was a pioneer,” Cuomo said in a statement issued on Wednesday. “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.”

Upon hearing of her death, several tributes from around the legal field poured out.

“She rose to become one of the seven judges in New York’s highest court, where her intellect, judicial temperament and wisdom earned her wide respect,” said New York State Bar Association President Claire P. Gutekunst in a statement.

“She was highly respected and an inspiration to so many throughout her career,” said New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. “Her passing leaves a void that will be difficult to fill.”

The Daily News said her last appearance on the bench was likely March 29 when the panel of seven appellate judges heard three cases. Her next session was scheduled for April 25.

“This was a person who really made an enormous effort to be a very down the middle jurist who would judge issues as it came to her,” said trial lawyer Robert Kelner, who has known Abdus-Salaam for 20 years, told the New York Law Journal. “I don’t think she had a leaning toward one side or the other.”

 

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