NEW YORK — Family tragedy surrounded Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam. About three years ago, law enforcement officials said, her brother killed himself. Last year around this time, her mother died.
On Wednesday, after responding to an emergency call, officers with the New York Police Department’s Harbor Unit found the body of Abdus-Salaam, the first black woman to serve on New York state’s highest court, in the Hudson River in Harlem with no apparent signs of trauma and no indications of foul play. The police are treating her death as a suicide, although an investigation is continuing.
According to one law enforcement official, Abdus-Salaam called her Midtown Manhattan chambers on Tuesday morning to say she would not be coming in because she was not feeling well. When the judge failed to appear on Wednesday, her assistant sent a text to her husband of eight months, who called 911 to report her missing a short time later. Her body was found that afternoon, floating in the river by the shore near West 132nd Street.
The judge was wearing a gray zippered sweater, black sweatpants, a gray T-shirt and New Balance sneakers, the official said. She also had a white watch on her wrist and a MetroCard in her pocket. Investigators do not believe that she had been in the river long.
Abdus-Salaam was last seen leaving her office on Monday evening, and investigators tracked her to the subway — the No. 6 line — at about 8 p.m., the official said. Investigators found the judge’s cellphone in her apartment, another official said, and the door had been locked with keys from the outside. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.
“She was a lovely, genteel lady,” Jonathan Lippman, a former chief judge of New York state, said. “We’re all just shocked. No one has any idea what happened.”
Since 2013, Abdus-Salaam had been one of seven judges on the state Court of Appeals. Before that, she served for about four years as an associate justice on the 1st Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court, and for 15 years as a state Supreme Court justice in Manhattan. She was previously a lawyer in the New York state attorney general’s office.
Zakiyyah Muhammad, founding director of the Institute of Muslim American Studies, said Abdus-Salaam became the first female Muslim judge in the United States when she started serving on the state Supreme Court in 1994.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement on Wednesday that Abdus-Salaam was a pioneer with an “unshakable moral compass.” He added, “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 nominating her to the highest court in 2013, Cuomo praised her “working-class roots” and her “deep understanding of the everyday issues facing New Yorkers.” Her nomination was part of a push by Cuomo to diversify the court. When another judge, Rowan D. Wilson, joined the court this year, it was the first time the Court of Appeals had two African-American judges in its 169-year history.
On the court, 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. She also tended to lean toward injured parties who brought claims of misconduct, fraud or breach of contract against wealthy corporations.
Among her colleagues, she was admired for her thoughtfulness, her candor and her finely crafted and restrained writing style. She was not one to use her decisions as a soapbox to make high-sounding political points or to wax poetic, even when her rulings set precedents.
In a statement, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said, “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.”
Last summer, Abdus-Salaam wrote an important decision, in the Matter of Brooke SB v. Elizabeth ACC, that expanded the definition of what it means to be a parent, overturning a previous ruling. For 25 years, the court had held that the nonbiological parent in a same-sex couple had no standing to seek custody or visitation rights after a breakup.
But Abdus-Salaam wrote that the previous ruling had become “unworkable when applied to increasingly varied familial relationships.” In a tightly reasoned decision, she determined that nonbiological parents did have standing to seek custody if they showed “by clear and convincing evidence that all parties agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together.”
The Court of Appeals last heard oral arguments at the end of March and issued opinions on April 4. It is scheduled to be back in session on April 25.
Abdus-Salaam grew up in Washington, one of seven children in a poor family, and earned her law degree at Columbia University in 1977. After law school, she became a public defender in Brooklyn, representing people who could not afford lawyers, and then served as an assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York state attorney general’s office. In one of her first cases, she won an anti-discrimination suit for more than 30 female New York City bus drivers who had been denied promotions.
Seymour W. James Jr., attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society, the nation’s largest provider of free legal services, said he first met Abdus-Salaam in the early 1980s, when she worked at the Civil Rights Bureau. James said her upbringing and years spent representing the poor and disenfranchised had shaped her perspective on the bench. “She was a strong believer in equal rights and equal access to justice,” he said in an interview.
In an interview in 2014 about black history, Abdus-Salaam said that she had become interested in her family’s history as a young girl in public school and that her research had led her to discover that her great-grandfather was a slave in Virginia.
“All the way from Arrington, Virginia, where my family was the property of someone else, to my sitting on the highest court of the state of New York is amazing and huge,” she said. “It tells you and me what it is to know who we are and what we can do.”
Eric Holder, former U.S. attorney general, was a classmate of Abdus-Salaam at Columbia Law School and sang her praises at her swearing-in ceremony in 2013, according to The Associated Press.
It was clear that she was intelligent, serious and witty, he said at the time, according to The Associated Press. But she could have fun, too: “Sheila could boogie,” he said.