New York’s legal community mourned the loss Thursday of Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first African-American woman on the state’s highest court, who was found dead Wednesday in the Hudson River.
Sources confirmed to the New York Law Journal Thursday that they were investigating the case as a possible suicide and that the judge’s husband reported Abdus-Salaam as missing Tuesday.
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. Wednesday. Abdus-Salaam was removed from the water and was pronounced dead at a pier at 125th Street.
Abdus-Salaam, 65, who lived in Harlem, had served on New York’s Court of Appeals since 2013.
Despite being on the state Court of Appeals for a relatively short four years, Abdus-Salaam wrote major decisions that redefined “parenthood” to include the one-time partners of same-sex couples and to declare that skin tone—not just race—should be recognized as a basis for the discriminatory treatment of jurors in New York courts.
“She was really admired,” Albany Law School Professor Vin Bonventre said. “We have not had a finer judge on the Court of Appeals since—maybe we’ve never had a finer judge on the court. And she was as fine a human being as well as a judge as you could get.”
Citing her “working-class roots” and reputation for legal scholarship in her judicial career, Gov. Andrew Cuomo nominated Abdus-Salaam to the state’s highest court in 2013 (NYLJ, April 8, 2013). She was quickly confirmed without a negative vote by the state Senate.
Cuomo selected Abdus-Salaam to swear him in at his inauguration for a second term as governor on Jan. 1, 2015.
The governor issued a statement Wednesday night in which he said, “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.”
Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said in a statement that New Yorkers were fortunate to have had Abdus-Salaam serve for 25 years as a state judge and “we will miss her greatly.”
Former Court of Appeals judge Eugene Pigott Jr., who served with Abdus-Salaam from May 2013 until his retirement at the end of 2016, said Thursday that in many ways, Abdus-Salaam quietly emerged as the leader on the court among the six associate judges below the chief judge.
Pigott, who is now an acting Supreme Court justice in Buffalo, said she was “cordial beyond measure.”
“Procedural discussions seemed to dissolve into consensus because of her calm deliberate manner,” Pigott said. “On the bench [during oral arguments], I was often reminded of the aphorism ‘If you want to be heard, whisper.’ She would begin to speak by saying “Counselor” in a calm quiet voice, leading the rest of us to pause as she made her point.”
Former chief judge Jonathan Lippman, who was on the Court of Appeals with Abdus-Salaam from May 2013 through his retirement in 2015, said Abdus-Salaam’s “genteel” nature never prevented her from expressing her points of view or of trying to win her colleagues over to them on the closer decisions decided by the court in her time there.