Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam of the New York Court of Appeals was found dead Wednesday in the Hudson River, the New York City Police Department confirmed.
According to a spokesperson for the department, a 911 caller reported seeing a female unconscious and floating in the Hudson near 132nd Street at 1:45 p.m. Abdus-Salaam was removed from the water and was pronounced dead at a pier at 125th Street.
Police are still investigating.
Abdus-Salaam, 65, who lived in Harlem, had served on New York’s highest state court since 2013. She became the first African American woman to serve on the court since its formation in 1847. Then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., a Columbia Law School friend of Abdus-Salaam’s, attended the judge’s investiture in June 2013.
“There was a seriousness about her, a strong sense of purpose at a relatively young age,” Holder said in remarks then. “She never forgot where she came from.”
The New York Post, citing unnamed sources, reported that Abdus-Salaam had been reported missing from her home earlier Wednesday. The Post also said Abdus-Salaam’s body showed no clear sign of trauma that would suggest foul play.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who nominated Abdus-Salaam to the Court of Appeals, said in a statement Wednesday: “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. 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.”
Jonathan Lippman, retired chief judge of the Court of Appeals, called Abdus-Salaam’s death “shocking to all of us.”
“She was a beautiful human being, a wonderful judge and the court system which she served for all those years and the high court, deeply mourns her loss. Someone we so respected and loved,” Lippman, now of counsel at Latham & Watkins, said in an interview Wednesday night.
While Lippman called Abdus-Salaam a “genteel lady,” he also said she would forcefully advocate for her position in the private conferences at which judges hashed out their rulings at the Court of Appeals.
Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas called Abdus-Salaam “a groundbreaking jurist whose distinguished service on the Court of Appeals, the New York State Supreme Court, as a public defender and public servant made our communities stronger and more just. My heart goes out to her family, friends and colleagues as they mourn this tragic loss.”
Veteran New York trial lawyer Robert Kelner, who first met Abdus-Salaam 20 years ago at a Columbia Law School event, called the judge “a brilliant person.”
“This was a person who really made an enormous effort to be a very down the middle jurist who would judge issues as it came to her,” Kelner said. “I don’t think she had a leaning toward one side or the other.”
Kelner said the judge’s personality at Columbia functions was “both serious and warm.” He added: “I don’t know anyone who would not have liked her.”
‘Uncompromising sense of fairness’
Abdus-Salaam obtained her JD from Columbia Law School in 1977 and began her legal career at Brooklyn Legal Services, Corporation A. In 1991, she was elected to the New York City Civil Court. She was first elected to the state Supreme Court in 1993.
Abdus-Salaam was confirmed by the state Senate to the Court of Appeals on May 6, 2013. Days earlier, she had faced one of the least controversial confirmation hearings for the Court of Appeals in recent memory. Republican and Democratic senators praised her experience on the bench and the judicial restraint she showed in her rulings while on the Appellate Division, First Department from 2009-2013.
In remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Abdus-Salaam said she was became interested in the law by watching such television dramas as “East Side, West Side” and “Perry Mason” and from a family friend who was an attorney.
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.”
Eric Holder said it was obvious at Columbia Law School in the late 1970s that the student then known as Sheila Turner was equipped with a deep intellect and a winning personality.
Among the major decisions authored by Abdus-Salaam was the court’s ruling in two cases that expanded the definition of “parenthood.” The court said that non-married, ex-partners of biological parents could seek custody or visitation rights of children they once agreed to conceive and raise as co-partners with their exes.
Abdus-Salaam wrote in Matter of Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A. C.C., 91, and Matter of Estrellita A. v. Jennifer D., 92, that limiting the definition of parents to a female mother and a male father was too narrow in light of greater prevalence of non-traditional couples and of the 2011 legalization of same-sex marriage in New York state.
“Judge Abdus-Salaam saw clearly how damaging it was to keep LGBT parents from their children,” Susan Sommer of Lambda Legal, who represented Brooke S.B., said Wednesday. “We owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude,” Sommer said. “She touched the lives of many New Yorkers; her legacy will live on.”
Chief Judge Janet DiFiore called Abdus-Salaam a “most beloved colleague” among her fellow Court of Appeals judges.
“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,” DiFiore said in a statement Wednesday night. “Sheila’s smile could light up the darkest room. The people of New York can be grateful for her distinguished public service.”
Contact Andrew Denney at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @messagetime. Reporters Jason Grant and Joel Stashenko contributed to this report, which has been updated with additional comment about Abdus-Salaam’s career.