Sheila Abdus-Salaam grew up in poverty with her six siblings in Washington DC, before becoming the first female Muslim judge in the United States and the first African American woman to serve on New York’s highest court. On Wednesday, her body was discovered in the city’s Hudson river. Her husband had reported her missing the day before.
“Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam was a trailblazing jurist and a force for good,” said New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, in a statement. The governor had sworn Abdus-Salaam in as an associate judge to New York’s court of appeals in 2013.
“As the first African American woman to be appointed to the state’s court of appeals, she was a pioneer. 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,” said Cuomo.
The body of Abdus-Salaam, 65, was discovered in the river near Harlem in upper Manhattan on Wednesday. Her husband had reported her missing earlier that day, after she failed to arrive at work, according to the New York Times.
Police said there were no signs of a crime, the Associated Press reported. “The cause of death will be determined by the medical examiner,” an NYPD spokesperson told the Guardian.
Born Sheila Turner in 1942, Abdus-Salaam attended public schools in DC before graduating from Barnard College in 1974 and Columbia Law School in 1977.
The former US attorney general Eric Holder was a friend and Columbia classmate, and attended her court of appeals swearing-in ceremony.
“Despite the great distances we’ve travelled since we studied at Columbia, you still have the same ... service and communality towards fairness, quality and for justice,” said Holder in his 2013 speech. During his seven-minute talk about her, he also joked: “Sheila could boogie.”
Her career focused heavily on social justice issues. After graduation, she worked representing the underprivileged at the East Brooklyn Legal Services. She then spent eight years working as an assistant attorney general covering civil rights and real estate financing at the New York state department of law.
Abdus-Salaam garnered a number of legal and community awards for her service over the years, including a 2014 Trailblazers in Justice award from the state government and the 2016 Stanley H Fuld award from the New York State Bar Association.
“It’s a great loss to the legal community, especially the black legal community, in this country,” said the Harlem attorney Kafahni Nkrumah, who met her several times socially in the Harlem offices of her close friend Lennox S Hinds, an esteemed international human rights lawyer who represented Nelson Mandela and exiled the former Black Panther Assata Shakur.
“Becoming the first black Muslim female to take the bench says everything about her mind. She was sharp, very sharp,” said Nkrumah.
She was the founding board chair of the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDco), and coordinated the Black History Month program at the court of appeals.
Last year Abdus-Salaam wrote the opinion in the case of Brooke SB v Elizabeth ACC, which changed how same-sex parents are viewed under the law. Previously, non-biological parents in same-sex relationships did not have the same legal rights as biological parents regarding custody and access if the relationship between the parents fell apart, but the opinion of Abdus-Salaam and the court changed that, overruling past legal decisions.
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 under Domestic Relations Law.
In a decision last December by the court, Abdus-Salaam ruled that a juror could not be excluded from a jury because of their skin color, after a prosecutor refused to allow a dark-skinned Indian American woman on a jury because the defendant was African American.
“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,” said chief judge Janet DiFiore.