In 1952, Sheila Abdus-Salaam was born to a working-class family of seven children in Washington, D.C. It’s here that she attended public school, then, as a teenager and following an encounter with civil rights attorney Frankie Muse Freeman, she decided to enter the legal profession.
– Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) April 14, 2017
Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo appointed her to the State’s High Court in 2013, making her the first African-American woman appointed to the Court of Appeals. This was to become the high point of her legal career, which began with her law degree from Columbia University.
Before Cuomo’s promotion, Abdus-Salaam served for 14 years as a Manhattan Supreme Court judge. She was praised by the governor for her “unshakable moral compass.”
The New York Daily News reported that tragically, the fully clothed body of this amazing pioneering woman was recently found floating in the Hudson River. A police source said that they believe Sheila Abdus-Salaam took her own life after a recent battle with depression.
According to the Daily News, a source said that Sheila Abdus-Salaam began taking antidepressants just a few weeks before her apparent suicide. Her medications have been found, and police are investigating her disappearance.
– Amanda Johnston (@amejohnston) April 13, 2017
At this point, no suicide note has been found, and the police won’t say anything further until they have the results of an autopsy, which was to be carried out on Thursday.
According to Robert Boyce, NYPD’s Chief of Detectives, there were no injuries to her body, no apparent trauma, and no physical abnormality at all.
Sheila Abdus-Salaam’s body was found floating on the shoreline of the Hudson River at approximately 2 p.m. on Wednesday, and at the time of her death, she was wearing gym clothes and sneakers. Boyce said that the police received a 911 call saying a body had been spotted about a mile from Abdus-Salaam’s Harlem home. Sheila’s husband, Reverend Gregory Jacobs, reported her missing on Tuesday morning. It’s understood that Reverend Jacobs lives in Newark, and that he and his wife owned their own homes.
Sheila Abdus-Salaam’s friends and colleagues were shocked and saddened to hear of her death. Former Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright said that he had only recently seen the deceased on the subway prior to her death.
“She was always a very calming, beautiful presence. She became one of the brightest and most respected legal minds in the U.S.”
– New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) April 12, 2017
A court source said that Abdus-Salaam attended an annual lawyers’ luncheon last week and appeared light-hearted as she laughed with colleagues.
Pat Miller was Sheila’s neighbor in Harlem, and he completely disputes the idea that Abdus-Salaam committed suicide.
“I could not imagine her doing anything to herself to harm herself. She’s not that type of person. I’d like to know what happened. I would really like to know.”
Fortune reported that Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo made the following statement.
“Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam was a trailblazing jurist whose life in public service was in pursuit of a more fair and more just New York for all.”
In the Princeton encyclopedia of American political history, Sheila Abdus-Salaam is described as the first female Muslim to serve as a United States judge, however, the “Muslim” comment is now in dispute. It appears that she never converted to Islam; she simply took her first husband’s Islamic surname.
The Washington Post reported that at this point, it’s not known how Abdus-Salaam’s body ended up in the river or how long it had been there. However, her death has completely shaken the New York legal community.
Mayor Bill de Blasio described Sheila as “a humble pioneer,” while Governor Andrew M. Cuomo described her as “a trailblazing jurist whose life in public service was in pursuit of a more fair and more just New York for all.”
– Jeffrey Guterman (@JeffreyGuterman) April 12, 2017
“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.”
At the time of Cuomo recommending Abdus-Salaam to the State Court of Appeals, the attorney in charge of criminal practice at the Legal Aid Society in New York City and president of the New York State Bar Association, Seymour W. James Junior, commended Cuomo on his choice, saying that based on her vast experience, Sheila was an ideal choice.
“Justice Abdus-Salaam has followed her inspiration by serving the public throughout her distinguished career as an attorney and jurist.”
Janet DiFiore is chief judge of the State Court of Appeals, and in a statement on Wednesday, DiFiore said that colleagues have hailed Sheila Abdus-Salaam throughout her career for her fairness as a decision-maker and her clarity as a writer.
“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.”
Sheila Abdus-Salaam is widely renowned for one of her most significant recent decisions when 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 has become unworkable when applied to increasingly varied familial relationships.”
It was her ruling 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.”
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder traveled to Albany to honor Sheila Abdus-Salaam when she was formally sworn in as the seventh member of New York’s top court. Four decades earlier, Sheila had been his former classmate at Columbia Law School. In a courtroom packed with Sheila’s family, friends, and legal colleagues, Holder made a moving speech.
“Sheila could boogie. 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.”
A picture of Judge Sheila Abdus- Salaam being sworn in. pic.twitter.com/8Bx2kvbwio
– Amy Cutler (@AmyCutlerNews) June 20, 2013
At an event in Brooklyn in 2015 celebrating Black History Month, Sheila credited her mother’s efforts in 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. Although she dropped out of school, my mother realized that a good education would help us escape the poverty that we were trapped in.”
Judge Jonathan Lippman is a former chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. After hearing of Abdus-Salaam’s death, he said that the court has suffered a “terrible blow.”
“It’s just so shocking. She was a lovely lady and judge. That’s why it makes it even more difficult to understand.”
[Featured Image by Mike Groll/AP Images]