This week’s unveiling of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam’s portrait in the Court of Appeals brings us close to one year ago when we, and the entire New York legal community, learned of her shocking and tragic passing. It is a reminder of how fragile life can be and a reminder for us to live the fullest each day. It is timely and appropriate for our legal community to remember and celebrate her life. I’m going to refer to her honor as Sheila here because I want to talk about the person behind the judicial title. She was without question a stellar judge, but first and foremost, she was a stellar person.
We can start by acknowledging that Sheila had a storied career, but it did not come easy. The laurels which she so richly deserved were hard-earned after many challenges and difficulties.
Sheila was born into a working-class family of seven in the nation’s capital in 1952. It was a home that valued education and family values. Sheila developed an altruistic interest in the law as a young student. She possessed an innate intelligence along with a strong work ethic that paved her path to Barnard College. There, she majored in economics. This would foreshadow the reputation that Sheila would later earn on the bench for her proficiency in handling complex commercial appeals. I’ll venture a guess that in the early 1970s, there weren’t many female economics majors at Barnard, or elsewhere for that matter, and it’s safe to say even fewer African-American women were afforded the opportunity to pursue the “dismal science” of economics. However, Sheila’s drive and intelligence ensured her academic success.
While at Barnard, Sheila participated fully in college life. She engaged and involved herself in the tumultuous social and civil rights issues of the day. While a serious student, she enjoyed parties, went to James Brown concerts and, above all, loved dancing. But unlike the conventions of the college scene, she never drank or smoked and led a vegetarian lifestyle. Even as a college student, Sheila stood out for her uniquely personal approach to life that defied the conventions of the time.
Enrollment in Columbia Law School followed Barnard. At Columbia, she made lifelong friends, including Eric Holder, our former U.S. attorney general who spoke at Sheila’s investiture to the New York Court of Appeals. With her Ivy League pedigree, Sheila could have pursued large New York law firms, as difficult as that may have been for a woman of color in the 1970s, or she could have looked for financially secure corporate positions. Sheila did not pursue these lucrative avenues, but instead, she sought out poor, minority and under-represented neighborhoods and the needs of their residents. She began her career as an attorney for Brooklyn Legal Services. On that career track she would never make a fortune, but she gained invaluable experience and honed her legal skills helping people who had nowhere else to turn as they struggled to cope with life’s problems during that stressful era.
While she practiced law in Brooklyn, Sheila lived in Harlem—another neighborhood that knew the turmoil of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. In Harlem, Sheila bought a townhouse and expended much time and energy in its renovation and only completed the finishing touches shortly before her death.
A memorial dedication of Sheila’s life was held after her passing in the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the famous unfinished but splendidly beautiful cathedral. St. John’s is a monumental work of art, one of the largest churches in the world, home to devout worshipers, and also a venue for music and social work. The cathedral in some respects can be seen as reflective of Sheila’s life, an unfinished life that was at once beautiful and spacious, gracious in its openness and altogether grand and giving.
The many qualities of Sheila Abdus-Salaam were clearly seen and admired by those of us who had the privilege of knowing her personally and professionally. Her impressive career on the bench and her meteoric rise through the courts up to the Court of Appeals are well-known to all in New York’s legal world. Her stellar record and achievements speak for themselves.
On a more personal level, those of us who knew Sheila as a person, colleague and friend can attest to her equally impressive personal qualities. Sheila was, above all, unfailingly gracious to one and all. She extended the same warmth and courtesy to everyone she met. When news broke of her death, the security officers in 41 Madison, the building next to the courthouse, were deeply saddened and mourned by her passing. She treated our custodians the same way she treated public officials. The legal and clerical staff similarly were treated with friendliness and respect. This same warmth and good manners radiated out to everyone whose lives crossed hers throughout the city on a regular basis. This personal grace defined Sheila to friends and colleagues as well as strangers.
Attorneys who practiced before Sheila have remarked many times over the years that, even in trial court, where demands of time and performance impose unending pressures, she took care to understand each case before her and respected the lawyers representing their clients. When trial lawyers appeared before Judge Abdus-Salaam, they knew they could expect a respectful professional jurist. Behind the robe was a courteous, intelligent and thoughtful person—that same person known to her friends and colleagues in the First Department. Sheila was a judge in the First Department from 2009 to 2013 when she was elevated to the New York State Court of Appeals.
In her years on the appellate bench, in the First Department and on the Court of Appeals, she was known for her diligence, her work ethic and her determination that she get the details and nuances of knotty cases just right. Her approach to law was not ideological but a practiced concern for understanding and then applying the law. Where the law went, her decisions followed. This was especially true when she dug into complex commercial cases. Her approach was always to work toward a supportable outcome rather than starting with the outcome and accommodating her decision to it. She did not operate from any ideological leaning—one way or the other. Her decisions were always based on the law.
Many who knew her, especially Judges, past and present, who served with Sheila in the First Department, will remember another memorable quality in Sheila’s character—her enduring loyalty to the judges and staff members of the Court. While serving in the First Department, she of course attended all of our court events. However, even after she was appointed to the Court of Appeals, even as her work life moved to Albany, she remained part of the First Department. She invested time and energy to maintain her friendships. So, Sheila continued to attend all our courthouse events, our end-of-the-term judicial luncheons and even personal and family occasions. She spent a Sunday morning attending the wake for my mother in Chinatown a couple of years ago and doubtless shared such personal occasions with others in our First Department family. She was present for both memorials held for Justice Israel Rubin and Presiding Justice Tim Murphy conducted in our courtroom not long ago. She continued to share intimate moments with us, not leaving us when her seat on the bench moved north. She remained loyal to her friends and colleagues to the very end.
Sheila is greatly missed by family, friends and colleagues. In celebrating her and her life, we are grateful for having had her among us, albeit for too short a time. Sheila’s impressive life of achievements and contributions, both professional and personal, will live on not only in the written annals but also in the hearts and lives of all those who had the privilege of knowing her. Friends remembered that in her youth and up through her adult life, Sheila loved to dance. I recall we were at a function in uptown Manhattan a few months before her passing. When the music blared out from the band, I found myself dancing with Sheila in the corner of the dining hall. She had some terrific moves! I think that it is a fitting final metaphor to remember Sheila not by the tragedy of her passing, but by her “joyous dance through life,” which encompassed such grace and generosity. If there was sadness, it was concealed beneath layers of buoyant optimism. This is how we should remember Sheila Abdus-Salaam, a very special and talented person who had a love for life.
Justice Peter Tom sits on the Appellate Division, First Department.