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Country’s First, Female Muslim Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam Found Dead In The Hudson River


Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first female, Muslim judge in the country, was found dead yesterday, April 12, in the Hudson River.

Abdus-Salaam was an associate judge on New York State’s highest court and the first African American to serve on that bench.

According to the New York Times, she was discovered after someone reported a body floating by the shore near W. 132nd in Manhattan. The New York Police Department’s harbor department responded to the call around 1:45 p.m. Abdus-Salaam was taken to a pier on the Hudson River and pronounced dead shortly after 2 p.m.

Naturally, the police are investigating how she ended up in the river. As for now, police are still unsure about how long Abdus-Salaam, who lived in Harlem close to where her body was found, had been missing. Police said there were no signs of trauma on her body and that she was fully clothed.

Her husband identified her body.

Abdus-Salaam has been one of seven judges on the State Court of Appeals, since 2013, served for four years as an associate justice on the First Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court and for 15 years as a State Supreme Court in Manhattan. Before that, she was a lawyer in the city’s Law Department.

Zakiyyah Muhammad, founding director of the Institute of Muslim American Studies, said Abdus-Salaam became the first Muslim judge in the United States when she started serving on the State Supreme Court in 1994.

In a statement, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said:

“Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam was a trailblazing jurist whose life in public service was in pursuit of a more fair and more just New York for all.

As the first African-American woman to be appointed to the State’s Court of Appeals, she was a pioneer. 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. 

I was proud to appoint her to the state’s highest court and am deeply saddened by her passing.

On behalf of all New Yorkers, I extend my deepest sympathies to her family, loved ones and colleagues during this trying and difficult time.”

The New York Times writes: “On the court, Judge Abdus-Salaam was among the most reliable and steadfast liberal voices, regularly siding with vulnerable parties — the poor, impoverished immigrants and people with mental illnesses, for instance — against more powerful and established interests. She also tended to lean toward injured parties who brought claims of misconduct, fraud or breach of contract against wealthy corporations.

Among her colleagues, she was admired for her thoughtfulness, her candor and her finely crafted and restrained writing style. She was not one to use her decisions as a soapbox to make high-sounding political points or to wax poetic, even when her rulings were precedent-setting.”

Her colleague Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said, “Her personal warmth, uncompromising sense of fairness and bright legal mind were an inspiration to all of us who had the good fortune to know her.”

Last year, Abdus-Salaam wrote a game-changing opinion and expanded parental rights for same-sex couples. She wrote that nonbiological parents in a same-sex relationship could seek custody if they showed “by clear and convincing evidence that all parties agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together.”

Abdus-Salaam was one of seven children growing up in Washington. From a working class family, Abdus-Salaam earned her law degree from Columbia University in 1977. After graduation, she became a public defender in Brooklyn representing people who couldn’t afford lawyers. From there, she served as an assistant attorney general in the Civil Right’s Bureau of the New York State attorney general’s office. In one of her first cases, she won an anti-discrimination suit for more than 30 female bus drivers who had been denied promotions.

Former United States attorney general Eric Holder Jr. was a classmate of Abdus-Salaam at Columbia, told the Associated Press it was clear that she was intelligent, serious and witty. But she could have fun too. “Sheila could boogie.”

In 2014, in an interview about Black history Abdus-Salaam said that as a young girl she became interested in her family’s history and started researching which led her to discover that her great-grandfather was a slave in Virginia.

“All the way from Arrington, Va., where my family was the property of someone else, to my sitting on the highest court of the State of New York is amazing and huge. It tells you and me what it is to know who we are and what we can do.”

May she rest in peace.

Veronica Wells is the culture editor at MadameNoire.com. She is also the author of “Bettah Days.” You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter @VDubShrug.