More than three months after the body of New York Court of Appeals Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam was found floating in the Hudson River in upper Manhattan, her death was officially deemed a suicide caused by drowning.
The Office of Chief Medical Examiner announced the findings in a three-sentence news release issued on Wednesday. A spokeswoman for the office said it cannot comment on the details of tests conducted as part of the death investigation.
Abdus-Salaam, 65, was the first black woman to serve on New York’s highest court and was appointed there in 2013.
After Abdus-Salaam’s body was found in the Hudson on April 12 near W. 132nd St., the New York City Police Department initially announced it was investigating her death as a possible suicide, but some were skeptical about the theory.
That included the judge’s husband, the Rev. Canon Gregory Jacobs Jr., who issued a statement on April 19—after the NYPD changed course and announced it was investigating the death as suspicious—in which he said media reports containing “unfounded conclusions” about her mental state at the time of her death had “no basis in reality.”
A spokeswoman for Abdus-Salaam’s family members said on Wednesday afternoon they had no comment at this time. Gary Spencer, a spokesman for the Court of Appeals, also declined to comment.
Abdus-Salaam’s death sent shock waves through New York’s legal community, with many expressing surprise at the notion that she had taken her own life.
“Judge Abdus-Salaam was a terrific judge and a terrific human being and it was my pleasure to serve on the high court with her,” said Jonathan Lippman, who was chief judge of the Court of Appeals during Abdus-Salaam’s time there and who is now of counsel to Latham & Watkins.
A. Gail Prudenti, who was a friend of Abdus-Salaam’s and who was chief administrative judge for the Office of Court Administration when Abdus-Salaam was on the Court of Appeals, called Abdus-Salaam’s death a “human tragedy” and the time since her passing has been a “surreal experience,” saying that in their recent conversations that she did not see signs that her friend was in distress.
“It’s incredibly difficult for me to believe, having known her and spoken to her weeks before her death,” Prudenti said.
Prudenti, who is now dean of the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University, said the medical examiner’s announcement on Wednesday brought an old adage to mind: “Be kind, for everyone is fighting their own battle.”
Born Sheila Turner, Abdus-Salaam was a Washington, D.C., native—one of seven children growing up in a working-class household—and earned her law degree from Columbia Law School in 1977. In a Law Journal article commemorating Abdus-Salaam, Prudenti said that Abdus-Salaam was drawn to the law when she was just 13 years old, as she wanted to be a crusader for human rights.
She began her legal career at Brooklyn Legal Services, where she represented poor clients in landlord-tenant disputes and in immigration matters, and then moved onto the New York Attorney General’s Office, where she worked from 1980 to 1988.
In 1991, she was elected to the bench in New York City Civil Court, and was elected to the state Supreme Court in 1993. In 2009, then-Gov. David Paterson appointed Abdus-Salaam to the Appellate Division, First Department.
Following her death, some news outlets erroneously reported that Abdus-Salaam was a practicing Muslim—at the time of her death, she was not, but kept her first husband’s surname, which comes from the Arabic “servant of the all-peaceable.”
Abdus-Salaam, a longtime resident of Harlem, married Jacobs, her fourth husband, in 2016.
Among the notable decisions she authored during her time on the Court of Appeals was the court’s unanimous ruling in Matter of Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A. C.C. and Matter of Estrellita A. v. Jennifer D., 28 NY3d 192, in which it found that former partners of biological parents could assert visitation rights over the parents’ children.
Last month, the New York Senate appointed Paul Feinman, a First Department appellate justice, to fill the vacancy that Abdus-Salaam left on the Court of Appeals.