Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, whose body was found by police in the Hudson River on Wednesday, is remembered by those who knew her as a trailblazer and a relentless advocate for poor families.
The 65-year-old was the first African-American woman and the first Muslim woman to serve on New York’s highest court.
Born into a working class family of seven kids, Abdus-Salaam grew up in Washington, D.C. and would often watch classic legal dramas like “East Side, West Side” and “Perry Mason” as a child, according to New York State Courts.
In her teens, Abdus-Salaam was powerfully affected by an appearance at her high school by the famous civil rights attorney Frankie Muse Freeman.
After studying economics at Barnard and getting her law degree at Columbia, Abdus-Salaam started working as a public defender in Brooklyn in 1977.
As a young lawyer, Abdus-Salaam once won a discrimination case for 30 female bus drivers who were passed over for promotions given to their male counterparts, according to the New York Times.
Abdus-Salaam quickly moved up in her profession becoming a judge in 1991 and being elected to New York’s Supreme Court in 1993. In 2013, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo nominated her to the New York State Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state..
One the Court of Appeals, Abdus-Salaam became known, according to the New York Times, as “among the most reliable and steadfast liberal voices,” more often siding with “poor, impoverished immigrants” and other vulnerable parties against “powerful and established interests.”
Cuomo called the judge a “trailblazing jurist and a force for good” on Twitter Wednesday.
Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam was a trailblazing jurist and a force for good.
On behalf of all New Yorkers, I extend my deepest sympathies. https://t.co/hnic07Shp1
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) April 12, 2017
Last year, Abdus-Salaam wrote an important decision stating that the partners of LGBT parents who agreed to conceive a child together had the right to seek custody for non-biological kids.
Abdus-Salaam also chaired the board of directors for Harlem Legal Services, an organization providing free legal support to low-income New Yorkers.
We should not forget what Sheila Abdus-Salaam did for workers, the LGBT+ community, immigrants, and people with mental illnesses.
— R. Yarsky (@r_yarsky) April 13, 2017
Abdus-Salaam graduated Columbia in the same year as former US attorney general Eric Holder, who once traveled to Albany to see his former classmate sworn into to the Court of Appeals. “Sheila could boogie,” Holder told the Associated Press at time, also calling her intelligent and witty.
Ever since discovering that her great-grandfather was a slave in Virginia, Abdus-Salaam also frequently talked about the importance of young African Americans understanding their heritage.
“All the way from Arlington, Virginia, 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,” she said in a video project aimed at bringing African American history into the school curriculum. “It tells you and me what it is to know who we are and what we can do.”
Here’s the full video:
In her final years, Abdus-Salaam also lived through several personal tragedies, according to the Times, who said that police are currently treating her death as a suicide. Abdus-Salaam’s brother committed suicide three years ago and, at approximately the same time last year, her mother died.