The body of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam was found on the banks of the Hudson River in New York City this afternoon.
A witness who saw a person floating near the shore of the river reportedly called 911 to alert the NYPD. The NYPD harbor unit recovered the judge’s body, and paramedics subsequently pronounced her dead after taking her to a nearby pier.
Sheila Abdus-Salaam is reportedly the first woman of the Muslim faith to serve as a judge on any court in U.S. history.
Abdus-Salaam was appointed as a state appeals court judge in 2013 by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. She was also the first African-American woman to serve on that state’s appellate bench, which is New York’s highest court.
The judge’s husband contacted authorities on Tuesday morning to file a missing person’s report.
“Abdus-Salaam, 65, was discovered floating fully clothed on the Manhattan side of the river just before 2 p.m., by the Henry Hudson Parkway near W. 132nd St. — just a mile from her central Harlem home,” the New York Daily News reported.
According to the New York Post, there are no signs of foul play and the judge’s tragic passing may be the result of suicide. The medical examiner will determine the official cause of death after law enforcement authorities complete their investigation into the incident.
Tributes to the judge, a 1977 graduate of Columbia Law School where she was ex-Attorney General Eric Holder’s classmate, are pouring in on social media and through the conventional news media. A former legal services attorney as well as a government staff lawyer, she served as a judge on the state Supreme Court, which in New York is a lower court, for 20 years prior to the Cuomo appointment four years ago.
In a statement of condolence to her family, the governor praised Sheila Abdus-Salaam as a pioneer and a trailblazing jurist, the Daily Mail explained. “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. I was proud to appoint her to the state’s highest court and am deeply saddened by her passing.”
During her confirmation hearings in the legislature, Judge Abdus-Salaam told state senators that she was inspired to pursue a career in law by watching legal-focused TV dramas such as East Side, West Side and Perry Mason and also by a family friend who was a lawyer, the New York Law Journal recalled. “She told senators she considered one of her strengths her ability to ‘calmly listen to and assess the merits of all sides of an issue’ as well as relating to ‘people from all walks of life, incomes and educational backgrounds.'” Judge Abdus-Salaam received a unanimous confirmation vote to the appeals court.
Abdus-Salaam was also inspired during her high school years by meeting civil rights lawyer Frankie Muse Freeman. The future judge described Freeman as “riveting” and that “she was doing what I wanted to do: using the law to help people,” Heavy.com noted.
Chief Judge Janet DiFiore described Abdus-Salaam as beloved by her colleagues on the seven-member appeals court.
In 2016, Judge Abdus-Salaam wrote a landmark decision that allowed a nonbiological parent in a same-sex relationship to go to court to seek visitation rights, a ruling which overturned 25 years of precedent in the Empire State.
“On the court, Judge Abdus-Salaam was among the most reliable and steadfast liberal voices, regularly siding with vulnerable parties — the poor, impoverished immigrants and people with mental illnesses, for instance — against more powerful and established interests,” the New York Times detailed.
The judge grew up in Washington, D.C., as one of seven children in a working-class family. At the time of her nomination to the appeals court, Gov. Cuomo praised her for both her understanding of the issues facing everyday New Yorkers as well as the complex issues that find their way to the state’s top court.
Watch this space for updates on the death of New York Appeals Court Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam.
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