Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam
Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam (Tim Roske)

Law Day (May 1) has a special significance for me because it celebrates the rule of law of and the triumph of right over might. This year, however, the festivity is a bit dimmed by the loss of a cherished friend who I viewed as the very embodiment of all that we celebrate on Law Day: Court of Appeals Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam.

Sheila and I were friends, contemporaries and confidantes. When she was a judge of the Appellate Division, First Department, I was presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department. When I was chief administrative judge, she was a judge of the Court of Appeals. We shared our thoughts on various legal issues as judges are wont to do, and we shared personal confidences as friends.

She told me of her childhood, that she was one of seven children of a working-class African American family in southeast Washington. I told her how I had grown up in a tight-knit Italian household where faith, family and friends was a holy trinity, and loyalty an unbreakable bond.

She told me how she was drawn to the law at the age of 13 as a crusader for civil rights. And I told her how I was lured to the law because I wanted to help people, to give back, to be on the side of freedom, fairness and justice.

Although our heritages were quite different, we understood each other. We spoke the same language.

Two years ago, we both mulled over our station in life and considered whether to apply for the position of chief judge. I threw my hat in, with her encouragement; Sheila, newly engaged, did not, despite my encouragement. But we were both hopeful and optimistic, and confident that our sixth and seventh decade would be our happiest. All seemed possible and all seemed good.

And that is one reason why her death is so hard to fathom.

If reports are true that she took her own life, Sheila must have quietly battled overbearing depression, and if so, she kept her illness well-hidden. Her work product was exceptional, her decisions reasoned and wise, her writing eloquent and elegant. How someone could function at that level while suffering from depression is beyond me. I can only assume that Sheila battled heroically, until she could battle no more. I am consumed with regret that neither I nor her other friends were able to help, and a bit embarrassed that I never even detected that she needed help.

I so clearly recall the day she was sworn in—June 25, 2013—and being amazed at the number of luminaries in attendance, even for a Court of Appeals investiture, which is always a grand occasion. Of course, the entire Court of Appeals was there, but so was the lieutenant governor, former chief judges Judith Kaye and Sol Wachtler, scores of current and retired judges, and famous lawyers, including as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. It seemed so fitting that the first black attorney general was there to witness the investiture of his law school friend, Sheila, the first black woman ever to sit on New York’s highest court.

Several people spoke, and all were outstanding, but the remark that struck me then, and strikes me now, as most precise came from our then-chief judge, Jonathan Lippman.

“We here at the Court of Appeals take note of great Appellate Division judges, and we certainly took note of Judge Abdus-Salaam,” he said. “Her body of work shows respect for the rule of the law and our precedents, and most of all seeks justice in each and every case. That is what we do. This is not an intellectual exercise. We seek justice, and Judge Abdus-Salaam gets it.”

As usual, exactly right, Judge Lippman. Sheila just “got it,” and what she “got” was the very essence of everything that makes Law Day such a special occasion. Her precedents will live on. I only wish there were more of them to come.

A. Gail Prudenti
The writer is interim dean and executive director
of the Center for Children, Families and the Law
at Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University