Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam was praised by friends and former colleagues this week after the 65-year-old was found dead Wednesday afternoon (April 12) in New York’s Hudson River. Considered a trailblazer, Abdus-Salaam was the first African-American woman and Muslim to serve on New York’s highest court.
In piece published by Mike Hayes of BuzzFeed News Thursday (April 13), those who knew the D.C. native called her a great role model with intentions to help any and everyone, especially the LGBT community and people of color. “Sheila was just a wonderful soul. She was a sweet soul — loving, caring, gentle person,” Ted Shaw, a former law school classmate of Abdus-Salaam’s, said. He also recalled memories where he would go to Abdus-Salaam’s apartment with his former girlfriend for dinners when he was low on funds. “She had a wonderful easy way about her,” Shaw added. One of seven siblings, Abdus-Salaam landed in New York in the 70’s where she attended Barnard College and later, Columbia Law School.
One of her classmates at Columbia included former attorney Eric Holder, who was present to watch Abdus-Salaam get appointed to the Court of Appeals. During the swearing in ceremony in 2013, Holder called Abdus-Salaam intelligent, witty and noted, “Sheila could boogie.”
“Who knew that we would both attain such high positions, and that you would be the first black United States attorney general, and I would be the first black woman on the New York Court of Appeals?,” he said at the time, reports The Times Union.
Abdus-Salaam made sure to look out for those who faced discrimination with landmark decisions in Matter of Brooke S.B. v Elizabeth A.C.C., and People v. Bridgeforth. The former overturned a ruling that gave same-sex couples a disadvantage in custody proceedings if they broke up. In her ruling, she stated nonbiological same-sex couples had the right to custody choices “by [presenting] clear and convincing evidence that all parties agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together.”
In the case of People v. Bridgeforth, Abdus-Salaam ruled that attorneys cannot axe potential jurors over their skin tone. “Defendant argues that, contrary to the people’s position, dark skin color is a cognizable class and, indeed, must be one unless the established protections of Batson are to be eviscerated by allowing challenges based on skin color to serve as a proxy for those based on race,” Abdus-Salaam wrote, per BuzzFeed News. “We agree with defendant.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo called Abdus-Salaam a pioneer in her own right. “As the first African-American woman to be appointed to the state’s Court of Appeals, she was a pioneer,” Cuomo said. “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.”
Police haven’t suspected any foul play in her death, and are currently investigating her death as a suicide. “Obviously, we’re still waiting for the full investigation, but to the extent that the challenges and the stresses in her life contributed to this, it’s a reminder that even the most accomplished people still deal with extraordinary challenges inward, and we don’t get to see that,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said to reporters Thursday.
Abdus-Salaam lost her mother last year and her brother when he committed suicide in 2014. She was also recently stressed at work. Kaylin Whittingham, president of the New York Association of Black Women Attorneys, told BuzzFeed News she saw Abdus-Salaam recently and seemed okay. “I did not see signs she was dealing with anything,” Whittingham said. “You can never quite tell. Whatever it is, it was just really tragic and heartbreaking.”