A highly respected judge — and the first black woman to serve on New York State’s highest court — was found dead Wednesday afternoon, authorities said.
NYPD Harbor Unit officers pulled the body of Sheila Abdus-Salaam, 65, of West 131st Street in Harlem, out of the Hudson River near 135th street at about 1:45 p.m., New York police said.
An associate justice on the state’s Court of Appeals, Abdus-Salaam was pronounced dead by emergency service personnel after she was found unresponsive and unconscious.
It was unclear Wednesday how she died, and a medical examiner was performing an autopsy to determine the cause of her death. A law enforcement source who didn’t want to be identified said police are initially considering the judge’s death as a possible suicide.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo nominated Abdus-Salaam for a slot on the state Court of Appeals in 2013. In a statement Wednesday, the governor called her “a trailblazing jurist whose life in public service was in pursuit of a more fair and more just New York for all.”
“As the first African-American woman to be appointed to the State’s Court of Appeals, she was a pioneer. Through her writings, her wisdom and her unshakable moral compass, she was a force for good whose legacy will be felt for years to come,” Cuomo said.
Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said in a statement said that Abdus-Salaam was “a most beloved colleague,” adding, “Her personal warmth, uncompromising sense of fairness, and bright legal mind were an inspiration to all of us who had the good fortune to know her.
“Sheila’s smile could light up the darkest room,” DiFiore said.
The Amistad Long Island Black Bar Association said Abdus-Salaam “truly embodied the core values of Amistad, seeking truth and justice, and most importantly respect, for all. Her groundbreaking work as an Associate Justice with the Court of Appeals is but a small, albeit significant, aspect of what she achieved in the legal field. Her loss will be truly felt among all jurists.”
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement he was “shocked and saddened” by news of the judge’s death, adding that Abdus-Salaam was “a dedicated public servant who served New York with honor and distinction as the first African-American woman to sit on the Court of Appeals....Her passing leaves a void that will be difficult to fill.”
Abdus-Salaam, a Washington, D.C., native and 1974 graduate of Barnard College, graduated from Columbia University Law School in 1977 and started a career as a staff attorney at East Brooklyn Legal Services Corp., according to her profile on the state Office of Court Administration’s website.
She had also worked for the New York State Department of Law as an assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights and Real Estate Financing bureaus until 1988, when she became general counsel for the New York City Office of Labor Services, according to the profile. In 1991, she was elected to the New York City Civil Court bench.
She was elected to the state Supreme Court in Manhattan in 1993 and served in various capacities until 2009, when she was appointed to the state Appellate Division by then-Gov. David A. Paterson.
Cuomo tapped her in 2013 after the death in November 2012 of Judge Theodore Jones Jr.
When Abdus-Salaam was appointed to the Court of Appeals in 2013, Vincent Bonventre, an Albany Law School professor and longtime court analyst, said: “It’s hard to find anyone who seriously questions the qualifications of Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam to sit on New York’s highest court.”
She said she was humbled by the appointment.
“I am honored to be nominated by Governor Cuomo to serve on the New York State Court of Appeals,” she said in the news release announcing her nomination in April 2013. “This nomination presents me with an opportunity to continue to serve New Yorkers, and advocate for justice and fairness here in New York State.”
News of her death shocked colleagues who recalled a fine jurist. “She was a lovely, genteel lady,” said former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. “This is a shock, what more is there to say?”
Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas said “Sheila Abdus-Salaam was a groundbreaking jurist whose distinguished service on the Court of Appeals, the New York State Supreme Court, as a public defender and public servant made our communities stronger and more just.”
With Anthony M. DeStefano and Yancey Roy
A previous version of this story incorrectly described Abdus-Salaam as being a Muslim due to incorrect information provided by state officials.