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Sheila Abdus-Salaam, first black female judge on NY’s high court, was found dead Wednesday

Police are treating her death as a suicide.

Photo by Hans Pennink/Associated Press

Sheila Abdus-Salaam was the first black woman appointed to the New York Court of Appeals — a groundbreaking career that was cut short when she was found dead Wednesday in the Hudson River, likely the result of a suicide.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio described Abdus-Salaam, a 65-year-old associate judge on New York’s highest court, as a “humble pioneer.” When she was appointed to the New York State Court of Appeals, according to the New York Times, she was the first black woman to have held the position. One of her recent decisions expanded the definition of “parenthood” for same-sex couples.

There were no apparent signs of trauma on her body, and a police source told the New York Daily News she likely took her own life.

What we know about her death

  • Officers with the NYPD’s Harbor Unit responded to a report of a floating body near the shore of the Hudson River near West 132nd Street in Upper Manhattan around 1:45 pm on Wednesday, April 12, according to the New York Times.
  • Abdus-Salaam was pronounced dead by paramedics just after 2 pm, on a pier on the river.
  • CBS2 NY’s Tony Aiello reported that Abdus-Salaam had been reported missing a day earlier, on April 11, though it is unclear how long she had been unaccounted for.
  • A law enforcement official told the Times there were no apparent signs of criminality.
  • Law enforcement officials are treating her death as a suicide, the Times said, though still planning an investigation into the circumstances.

The life and legacy of a “trailblazing jurist”

Abdus-Salaam was born to working-class parents in Washington, DC, according to CNN, and started her legal career as a staff attorney at East Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation in 1977. In 1991, she took the bench as an NYC civil court judge, and was eventually elected to the state Supreme Court for New York County.

In 2009, then-Gov. David Patterson appointed her to the Appellate Division, First Department, of the New York State Court of Appeals. In 2013, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed her to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest judicial office.

Abdus-Salaam made several important rulings on civil rights, including writing the opinion in Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A. C.C, which expanded the definition of “parenthood,” specifically as it refers to same-sex couples. Before the August 2016 decision, only blood relatives, biological parents, or adoptive guardians could be granted custody and visitations rights for a child. The court’s opinion in the case changed that definition to allow for custody rights to be granted to a non-blood relative, such as a same-sex partner.

In a statement, Cuomo said 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.” He went on to call her “a force for good whose legacy will be felt for years to come.”

Although it’s been 25 years since Abdus-Salaam was appointed to the bench, female judges of color are still quite rare. According to the American Constitutional Society for Law and Policy, women make up less than a third of state judges, and people of color less than 20 percent. As a judge on the highest court of a large and powerful state, Abdus-Salaam represented an historic first and served as a strong voice who often sided with vulnerable groups.

Update: Though it has been widely reported that Abdus-Salaam was Muslim, a spokesperson for the NY Court of Appeals told the New York Times that she was not.