The Life And Tragic Death Of The First Black Female Judge On New York’s Highest Court
Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first black female judge on New York's highest court, was found dead Wednesday. Her friends and former colleagues remember her as a titan of the bench.
Last week, Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam attended an event to honor Jonathan Lippman, a fellow jurist on the New York State Court of Appeals. Given her stature amongst her colleagues, other women in the New York legal community attending the event were all anxious to greet the first black woman appointed to the bench of the state’s highest court.
Claire Gutekunst, president of NY State Bar Association, told BuzzFeed News she recalled approaching Abdus-Salaam — who was also the first black female judge to sit on New York’s highest court — while she was seated in the front row with the other judges, and giving her a hug.
“She seemed her normal, very friendly. She seemed herself,” Gutekunst said. “I have no idea now whether anything was amiss.”
Vickey Graffeo, a former judge on the Court of Appeals with Abdus-Salaam for seven years, found her old colleague at the event, too — eager to tell her that she had met a young African-American woman interested in attending Columbia Law School, Abdus-Salaam’s alma mater.
“I said, 'I’m going to send you the contact information. I think you’d be a great role model,'” Graffeo told BuzzFeed News. “She, of course, agreed.”
“I just dictated the letter yesterday,” Graffeo added. “Unfortunately, there’s no one to send it to today.”
On Wednesday, the 65-year-old Abdus-Salaam was found dead, her body floating in the Hudson River by the shore of Manhattan's West 132nd Street, just a few blocks from her Harlem home.
Details of her death are still unclear. On Thursday, the New York Times reported, citing law enforcement officials, that her death was being investigated as a suicide. She was reported missing by her husband, Gregory Jacobs, the day before. The NYPD could not confirm the details of Abdus-Salaam’s death but said that there was no sign of trauma or struggle. Police said the final cause of her death will be determined by the city’s medical examiner.
With her death, Abdus-Salaam leaves behind a storied career of — as her colleague John Kiernan, President of the New York City Bar Association described it — “Keeping an eye on the little guys and the underdogs.”
Born in 1952 in Washington, DC, Abdus-Salaam first came to New York in the early 1970s to attend Barnard College in Upper Manhattan. From there, she attended Columbia Law School, graduating in 1977.
UNC law school professor Ted Shaw, a former law school classmate of Abdus-Salaam’s, remembers going over to her Harlem apartment with his then-girlfriend where Abdus-Salaam would feed them because he “wasn’t much for money at the time.”
“Sheila was just a wonderful soul. She was a sweet soul — loving, caring, gentle person,” Shaw said.
In the years since law school, Shaw regularly visited his friend in Harlem. He remembers having barbecues in her backyard — even though Abdus-Salaam was a vegetarian — and watching Yankee games.
“She had a wonderful easy way about her,” Shaw said.
During her early years in New York, Abdus-Salaam, whose maiden name was Turner, and her first husband began to follow the Nation of Islam and converted to the Muslim religion. The couple eventually broke up and she left the Nation. However, those close to her believe that she continued to be quietly associated with Islam. “Sheila was not one to proselytize,” Shaw said.
After law school, Abdus-Salaam started her career at East Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation, a federally funded program coordinating legal assistance for the poorest people in Brooklyn — one of the lowest paying jobs in the profession at the time.
“It is retail human vulnerability. One person at a time, work like hell to save them,” Kiernan said in describing the job. “My personal view is that the character of those people is heroic.”
From Brooklyn, Abdus-Salaam went to work for the New York State Attorney General, spending most of her time in the AG’s office in the civil rights bureau.
She became a judge in 1992 when she was elected to the New York civil court. A rising star, Governor David Patterson appointed her to the Appellate Division in 2009. Then, four years later, Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed her to the highest court in the state, the Court of Appeals. At her swearing-in ceremony, her former law school classmate Eric Holder, the former US Attorney General, said on her behalf: “Sheila could boogie.”
During her short time as a Court of Appeals judge, Abdus-Salaam left an indelible mark, authoring two landmark decisions in just the last year.
In the Matter of Brooke S.B. v Elizabeth A.C.C., Abdus-Salaam wrote the decision that overturned an over two-decade old ruling that said nonbiological parents in a same-sex couple had no standing to seek custody of a child after the couple broke up.
In her opinion, Abdus-Salaam said she determined that nonbiological parents 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.”
Susan Sommer, lawyer for the plaintiff in that case, told BuzzFeed News that since the Brooke decision she has seen “a ripple effect” across the state.
“Just a few days ago, I got a thank-you email from somebody I don’t know at all who has custody,” Sommer said. “It has opened doors that were slammed for decades in New York.”
“She embodied so many important features for New York,” Sommer said. “A woman, an African American, a jurist who broke critical new ground for LGBT families. She represented much that we should aspire to.”
In another recent Court of Appeals ruling, People v. Bridgeforth, Abdus-Salaam authored the decision that said that an attorney could not disqualify a potential juror in a case based on skin tone, not just race.
“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. “We agree with defendant.”
Despite the demands of a high-profile job, other colleagues of Abdus-Salaam remember her as someone who was generous with her time, particularly with law students.
Albany Law School Professor Vincent Bonventre, who brings his class to the Court of Appeals on Wednesdays to watch arguments, said Judge Abdus-Salaam would not hesitate to come out after the proceedings and chat with the students.
“It wasn’t ‘you’re lucky to be speaking with me’ with her — it was exactly the opposite,” Bonventre said. “She was thrilled. She would be very, very candid about how tough the cases were, open about the fact that voting in the cases was close and that she struggled with how to vote.”
Through all the triumphs of her career, Abdus-Salaam dealt with her share of tragedy in her personal life. In 2014, her brother committed suicide, the Times reported. And last year she lost her mother.
As reports emerged on her death, her colleagues and friends remained in disbelief about the possibility that Abdus-Salaam might have taken her own life.
Kaylin Whittingham, president of the New York Association of Black Women Attorneys, an organization that Abdus-Salaam was active with, said she saw the judge several times over the last few weeks.
“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.”
Whittingham remembers when Abdus-Salaam’s brother died in 2014. Around the time of his death, the ABWA was set to honor Abdus-Salaam as a trailblazer for African-American women. But because of her brother’s death, she could not attend the event, so Whittingham accepted it on Abdus-Salaam’s behalf.
“When I saw her, I gave her the award and told her, ‘This girl is on fire,’” making a reference to the Alicia Keys song, Whittingham recalls.
“All the time, that’s what I tell her: 'This girl is on fire!’"
It is unclear if Abdus-Salaam was a Muslim or if she was practicing or identified with the faith. A previous version of this article definitively called her a Muslim.