Remembering Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam

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Monday, April 17, 2017

Like much of the country, Legal Momentum is in shock over the untimely death of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam. Judge Abdus-Salaam was a pioneer on many fronts. She was an associate judge on New York State’s highest court and was the first African-American woman to serve on the court of appeals when she was appointed in 2013. She became the first-ever Muslim woman jurist in 1994 when she began serving on the State Supreme Court. Prior to becoming a judge, she worked as a public defender. According to the Law Journal, Judge Abdus-Salaam “made a significant impact on the law despite the relatively short period she spent on the state's highest court.”

She was found dead in the Hudson River on April 12. She was 65 and had been reported missing the day before. Judge Abdus-Salaam was held in high regard by a wide range of colleagues. Flags flew at half staff in her honor on April 13 at the Court of Appeals in Albany and on buildings housing state courts in New York City.

According to The New York Times, “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.”

New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said that Judge Abdus-Salaam was “a trailblazing jurist and a force for good.”

She was best known for a landmark decision last summer in the case of Brooke S.B. v Elizabeth A.C.C., which expanded the definition of parenthood, particularly for same-sex couples. The decision affirmed that a caretaker who is not related to or a legal guardian of a child can have legal rights. She also made important decisions related to discrimination in jury selection and immigrant rights.

Judge Abdus-Salaam was born in Washington, D.C., and graduated from Barnard College and from Columbia Law School. She said that she became interested in the law by watching television dramas such as "East Side, West Side" and "Perry Mason" growing up. As the great-granddaughter of slaves, Judge Abdus-Salaam recognized the importance of knowing one’s own history. In a brief YouTube video, she said, “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. And it tells you and me what it is to know who we are and what we can do.”

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Legal Momentum