Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam during a state Senate Judiciary committee meeting on her nomination to the Court of Appeals in 2013. (Tim Roske)
Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the judge who was found dead Wednesday in New York City, made a significant impact on the law despite the relatively short period she spent as the first black woman on the state’s highest court.
Sources confirmed to the Law Journal Thursday that the New York City Police Department was investigating the case as a possible suicide and that her husband, the Rev. Gregory Jacobs, reported her as missing Tuesday.
According to a police spokesman, a 911 caller reported seeing a female unconscious and floating in the Hudson River near 132nd Street at 1:45 p.m. Wednesday. Abdus-Salaam was removed from the water and pronounced dead at a pier at 125th Street.
The 65-year-old judge, who lived in Harlem about a mile from where her body was discovered, had served on New York’s Court of Appeals since 2013. Despite that short tenure, she authored major decisions that redefined “parenthood” as including the one-time partners of the same-sex biological parents of children and that declared 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.”
See related story: Officials Mourn, Praise Abdus-Salaam
A former colleague on the Court of Appeals, Eugene Pigott Jr., said Thursday that in many ways, Abdus-Salaam quietly emerged as the leader among the six associate judges on the court 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,” he 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.”
Flags flew at half staff Thursday at the Court of Appeals in Albany and on buildings housing state courts in New York City in her honor.
Citing her “working-class roots” and reputation for legal scholarship in her judicial career, Gov. Andrew Cuomo nominated Abdus-Salaam to the Court of Appeals four years ago (NYLJ, April 8, 2013). The state Senate confirmed her without opposition.
Cuomo later selected her to swear him in at his inauguration for a second term as governor on Jan. 1, 2015.
‘Sense of Purpose’
Abdus-Salaam was born in Washington, D.C., and graduated from Barnard College in 1974 and from Columbia Law School in 1977. She said at her confirmation hearing that she became interested in the law by watching television dramas such as “East Side, West Side” and “Perry Mason” growing up. In addition, she said inspiration came when she heard Frankie Muse Freeman, a trailblazing black female attorney, speak at her high school.
Then-U.S. attorney general Eric Holder attended Columbia Law School with the woman known at the time as Sheila Turner. At Abdus-Salaam’s investiture ceremony at the Court of Appeals in 2013, Holder recalled that while she had a “seriousness about her, a strong sense of purpose,” she also “could boogie” (NYLJ, June 21, 2013).
After being a staff attorney at the East Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation and working for both the state attorney general and New York City labor services offices, Abdus-Salaam was elected in 1991 as a Civil Court judge in New York City.
She was elected as a state Supreme Court justice from Manhattan in 1993 and reelected in 2007. She kept the surname of her first husband as her professional name.
In 2009, Gov. David Paterson appointed her to the Appellate Division, First Department, the state’s mid-level appeals court.
Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark served alongside Abdus-Salaam when they were both First Department justices. Clark said Abdus-Salaam was her mentor and helped her navigate the difficulties of the job and “always be the for a kind word.”
In 2015 Abdus-Salaam swore Clark into office as Bronx DA. Clark, the first black woman to serve as district attorney in New York, said Abdus-Salaam performing the ceremony was a memory she will “forever be grateful for.”
Abdus-Salaam’s departure from the First Department to take a seat on the Court of Appeals, Clark said, was “historic.”
“I had tears in my eyes because it was good to see how far we could reach,” she said. “The sky was the limit, and nobody deserved it more than her.”
Among the major decisions Abdus-Salaam authored for the high court was its single ruling in two cases in which it 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., and Matter of Estrellita A. v. Jennifer D., 28 NY3d 192 (2016), 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. The ruling said that the one-time same-sex partners of biological parents who had moved on to other relationships could seek to assert visitation rights over the youngsters (NYLJ, Aug. 30, 2016).
In People v. Bridgeforth, 28 NY3d 567 (2016), she wrote for the court that discrimination on the basis of skin color or tone violates the state constitution, just as bias on the basis of race and must be guarded against by courts in such decision-making as challenges to prospective jurors.
Her ruling deemed that the way a dark-skinned woman of Indian descent was excluded from a jury selected for a robbery trial in Queens violated the protections preventing the exclusion of jurors solely based on their race, color, creed or religion, as declared by the U.S. Supreme Court in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 US 79 (1986).
“Today, we acknowledge color as a classification separate from race for Batson purposes, as it has already been acknowledged by our state constitution and civil rights law,” she wrote for the unanimous court in Bridgeforth. “Making this distinction is necessary to serve the purpose of Batson, which recognized that discrimination in the selection of jurors violates ‘a defendant’s right to equal protection because it denies him [or her] the protection that a trial by jury is intended to secure.’”
Lawyers who follow the Court of Appeals closely said another significant ruling by Abdus-Salaam came in 2013, when she wrote for a 5-2 majority that trial judges must caution noncitizen defendants that they may be deported before allowing them to plead guilty to a felony.
She said deportation was a “uniquely devastating deprivation of liberty” that obliges courts to take extra steps to inform defendants of the ramifications of their pleas. The ruling was in People v. Peque, 22 NY3d 168 (2013), and two similar cases (NYLJ, Nov. 20, 2013).
Bonventre said Abdus-Salaam was always accommodating when he and others at Albany Law School requested that the judge appear on campus or speak to groups of law students after they had watched oral argument sessions the Court of Appeals.
“She would discuss very candidly how tough the cases were at the court, how close the issues were,” Bonventre said. “She was very frank about the fact that she would struggle with how to vote in particular cases.”
State Judiciary Law provides for the state Commission on Judicial Nomination to send Cuomo a list of up to seven candidates from which he will choose Abdus-Salaam’s replacement within 120 days. The process, under which Abdus-Salaam and all other Court of Appeals judges are selected, would give Cuomo until about mid-September to nominate a replacement to the state Senate.
Deaths or departures for reasons other than mandatory retirement from the Court of Appeals are rare, but not unheard of. Most recently, Susan Phillips Read resigned from the court in 2015, more than two years before her term was to have concluded (NYLJ, June 24, 2015).
The last death of a judge sitting on the Court of Appeals occurred when Theodore Jones Jr. died of a heart attack at age 68 in late 2012 (NYLJ, Nov. 7, 2012).
The New York legal community’s shocked and saddened reaction to the death of Jones—whom Abdus-Salaam ended up replacing on the court—was similar to how Abdus-Salaam’s death was received.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete as of Thursday, a Court of Appeals spokesman said.