America’s first female Muslim Judge found dead in Hudson River!
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
A groundbreaking black jurist Sheila Abdus-Salaam who became the first Muslim woman to serve as a US judge was found dead in New York’s Hudson River on April 12, according to a New York Post report. Sheila Abdus-Salaam, a 65-year-old associate judge of New York’s highest court, was found floating off Manhattan’s west side at about 1:45 p.m. EDT (1545 GMT), a police spokesman said.
Police pulled Abdus-Salaam’s fully clothed body from the water and she was pronounced dead at the scene. Her family identified her and an autopsy would determine the cause of death. Her husband reportedly identified her body. Citing unnamed police sources, the Post’s said Abdus-Salaam’s body showed no signs of foul play injuries or trauma.
Although local police found no trauma or signs of injury on Abdus-Salaam’s body, it’s not clear how the judge died or ended up off the shore of the river. According to BBC News, police first learned the judge was missing after her husband made a call Wednesday.
Abdus-Salaam, who was 65 years old, was pronounced dead at around 2 PM, shortly after law enforcement found her. Witnesses called 911 when they found 65-year-old Sheila Abdus-Salaam’s fully-clothed body in the river near 132nd Street and Hudson Parkway, police said. Citing unidentified sources, the New York Post reported that Abdus-Salaam had been reported missing from her New York home earlier on Wednesday. Attempts to reach her family were unsuccessful.
The 65-year-old judge, who lived in nearby Harlem, had spent the weekend in New Jersey with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Jacobs, and spoke with her assistant on Tuesday morning, Boyce said. Abdus-Salaam was discovered on Wednesday afternoon in the water near West 132nd Street. She had a MetroCard in her pocket and there were no obvious signs of trauma on her clothed body. “We don’t believe she was in the water for a long time,” Boyce said. The New York City Medical Examiner said it too was “unable to confirm the cause and manner of death at this time,” a spokesperson told NBC News.
A courageous and outspoken Abdus-Salaam, a native of Washington, D.C., became the first African-American woman appointed to the Court of Appeals when Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo named her to the state’s high court in 2013. “Justice 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,” Cuomo said in a statement.
The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History said Abdus-Salaam was the first female Muslim to serve as an American judge. A graduate of Barnard College and Columbia Law School, Abdus-Salaam started her law career with East Brooklyn Legal Services and served as a New York state assistant attorney general, according to the Court of Appeals website. She held a series of judicial posts after being elected to a New York City judgeship in 1991.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement via the Post, Abdus-Salaam was a “pioneer” and “a force for good.” Cuomo said of Abdus-Salaam, who was also the state’s first female African-American judge to be appointed to New York’s Court of Appeals, he “was proud to appoint her” and is “deeply saddened by her passing.”
One of six children raised by working class parents, Abdus-Salaam attended public schools and first became interested in the law by watching the TV show “Perry Mason.” But she found her calling when Frankie Muse Freeman, a civil rights attorney and the first woman to be appointed to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, visited her high school. “She was riveting,” Abdus-Salaam recalled in the profile. “She was doing what I wanted to do: using the law to help people.”
The judge also gave her mother credit for pushing her to succeed. “If my mother wasn’t such a smart and resourceful woman, I might have ended up in foster care or worse,” Abdus-Salaam recalled in 2015 at a Black History Month celebration. “Although she dropped out of school, my mother realized that a good education would help us escape the poverty that we were trapped in.”
Abdus-Salaam earned her bachelor’s degree at Barnard College in 1974 and graduated three years later from Columbia Law School where she was classmates with future U.S. Attorney Eric Holder, who remembered as serious but fun-loving. “Sheila could boogie, but there was a seriousness about her, a strong sense of purpose at a relatively young age,” he said. “She never forgot where she came from.”
Her first job out of college was as a public defender in Brooklyn where she often represented poor defendants and immigrants in landlord versus tenant disputes. “The job was not just legal, but also part social work, and some part education,” she said in the profile.
Later, she was an assistant attorney general in the New York State Department of Law’s civil rights where she won an anti-discrimination suit on behalf of 30 female city bus drivers who had been wrongly passed over for promotions. In 1994, Abdus-Salaam started serving on the New York Supreme Court. Then in 2009, Gov. David Paterson appointed her associate justice to the New York Appellate Division of the Supreme Court.
In 2013, Cuomo nominated Abdus-Salaam to fill a vacancy on the New York Court of Appeals and praised her “deep understanding of the everyday issues facing New Yorkers.” And after the state Senate confirmed her nomination, Abdus-Salaam received a standing ovation. She quickly distinguished herself as a champion of the poor and downtrodden and as a hedge against the powerful and politically-connected corporations. She also wrote a landmark decision that gave the non-biological parent in a same sex couple visitation rights after a breakup.
Born Sheila Turner in Washington on March 14, 1952, Abdus-Salaam was the great-granddaughter of a slave. She took her first husband’s last name and continued to use it professionally after that marriage ended, according to the Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History.
The prolific New York judge was 65 years old. Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first African American woman to serve on the New York State Court of Appeals, was found dead on Wednesday in the Hudson River, the New York Times reports. She was the first African-American woman to sit on New York State’s highest court. She was also widely hailed as the nation’s first female Muslim judge — or at least one of the first judges with a Muslim surname. And now the New York Police Department is trying to determine whether Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, whose body was found floating off Manhattan in the Hudson River, took her own life.
Before her death, Abdus-Salaam had an illustrious career as the first Muslim woman to serve as a US judge. After becoming a public defender in Brooklyn, Abdus-Salaam went on to serve as an assistant attorney general in the New York state attorney’s Civil Rights Bureau. From there she served as a lawyer in the city’s Law Department, an associate justice on the First Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court, and a State Supreme Court justice in New York City, according to the Times.
In 2013, New York governor Andrew Cuomo appointed Abdus-Salaam to the State Court of Appeals, making her the first black woman to serve on New York’s highest court. There, she was known to champion immigrants and the poor over wealthy, corporate interests. One of her most important rulings—which was decided last year—gave non-biological parents in same-sex relationships the right to seek custody of their children. Cuomo lauded Abdus-Salaam after learning of her death Wednesday, calling her “a force for good.” “Justice 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,” the governor said in a statement. “I was proud to appoint her to the state’s highest court and am deeply saddened by her passing.”
Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam looks on as members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee vote unanimously to advance her nomination to fill a vacancy on the Court of Appeals at the Capitol in Albany on April 30, 2013. “It’s too early to tell right now,” NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said Thursday. “We’ve spoken to many people in her family about her history. We don’t believe she was on any drugs at all. It was a surprise to everyone.”
Meanwhile, tributes poured in for the respected jurist who Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called a “trailblazer.” “During her time on the bench, Justice Abdus-Salaam earned the respect of all who appeared before her as a thoughtful, thorough, and fair jurist,” he said in a statement “I join all those who knew Justice Abdus-Salaam in mourning this terrible loss.” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called her a “humble pioneer.” And Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Abdus-Salaam possessed an “unshakable moral compass.” “She was a force for good whose legacy will be felt for years to come,” Cuomo said.
Asked what makes her a good judge, Abdus-Salaam said in a 2012 profile for Columbia Law School Magazine, “I think people consider me to be a judge who listens and gives them a fair shot.” Despite being widely hailed by that encyclopedia and several published reports as “the first female Muslim US judge,” it was unclear if she was been an active practitioner of Islam.
Abdus-Salaam was married three times. Her second husband was James Hatcher. And she is survived by Jacobs, whom she married in 2016 and who is a minister at the Episcopal Diocese of Newark.