Sheila Abdus-Salaam, ‘trailblazing’ judge on New York’s highest court, found dead at 65

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Sheila Abdus-Salaam

Portrait courtesy of the New York State Unified Court System

Sheila Abdus-Salaam, an associate judge for the New York Court of Appeals who advocated for vulnerable groups over the course of a distinguished legal career, was found dead in the Hudson River on Wednesday afternoon. She was 65.

Abdus-Salaam was the first black woman to serve as a judge on New York’s highest court, where her thorough reasoning and skilled writing was lauded by colleagues. She was the first female Muslim judge in the country.

Police said Thursday there was no sign of foul play, but that medical examiners would perform an autopsy, The New York Times reported.

Abdus-Salaam was born in Washington, D.C., in 1952 to a family of seven children. At a Black History Month celebration in New York City in 2015, Abdus-Salaam said her mother’s efforts had been vital to her success. “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 1977, she gained her law degree from Columbia University. She became a public defender working with East Brooklyn Legal Services and served as a New York assistant attorney general.

In 1991, she was elected to the Civil Court of the City of New York and then later to the state Supreme Court in 1993. In 2009, then-Gov. David A. Paterson appointed her associate justice of the First Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo nominated Abdus-Salaam to the state’s highest court in 2013, saying that she had a “deep understanding of the everyday issues facing New Yorkers.”

A liberal voice on the court, she often sided with vulnerable parties who said they had been wronged by larger institutions or corporations. Her colleagues admired her for her “thoughtfulness, her candor and her finely crafted and restrained writing style,” The New York Times reported.

Early in her career, she won an anti-discrimination case for about 30 female bus drivers in New York City who were passed over for promotions.

In December 2016, the court’s decision in People v. Bridgeworth ruled that skin color could not be a factor in choosing jurors.

Last August, Abdus-Salaam wrote the decision for Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A. C.C., which significantly expanded the definition of parenthood in New York. The court’s previous ruling in 1991 had said that non-adoptive, non-biological parents could not seek custody or visitation rights after separating from their partner.

The decision Abdus-Salaam penned said that in cases “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.”

It was a highly significant decision for LGBTQ couples, many of whom had chosen to raise families in an era before same-sex marriage was legal, Susan Sommer, associate legal director and director of constitutional litigation at Lambda Legal, told the PBS NewsHour. Currently, a patchwork of laws exists around the country that governs whether non-adoptive, non-biological parents can seek custody, she said.

In New York, previous rulings on the subject had “really failed to understand the reality of how same-sex couples form their families, and the profound parent-child bond, regardless of biology or adoptive relationship,” she said.

Following the decision last summer, Lambda Legal has heard from a number of parents who have been reunited with their children, she said.

Cuomo said in a statement that 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.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio described her as “a humble pioneer.”

Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said her example and work on civil rights issues was inspiring to women, Muslims and African Americans. “Her story was a story of success, empowerment and inspiration,” he said.

Janet DiFiore, chief judge for the New York Court of Appeals, said in a statement, “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.”

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