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Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam Was a Champion for the Poor and the Marginalized

Honoring the work of America's first Muslim woman judge.

by Kimberly Lawson
Apr 13 2017, 8:40pm

On Wednesday afternoon, the body of the country's first Muslim woman judge was found floating in the Hudson River in New York. Sheila Abdus-Salaam, an associate judge of the state's Court of Appeals, had been reported missing Tuesday from her home in Harlem. An unnamed police source told the New York Post she may have taken her own life, although the cause of death is still under investigation. Witnesses said there were no visible signs of foul play, and she was fully clothed.

Called a "trailblazer" by many, Abdus-Salaam was also the first African-American woman to serve on New York's highest court. The New York Times described her as "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."

Abdus-Salaam was nominated to the Court of Appeals by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2013. During her state senate confirmation hearing, Albany Law School professor Michael Hutter was one of the witnesses to testify in her favor. He said at the time: "I clearly support this nomination. I think when you look at the record, you have a person of substantial achievement at the bar, substantial achievement as a judge, and I think the only limitation that would be here is that we're only going to have her maybe for 10 years. I'd like to have her a lot longer than that on this court."

Read more: How Islamophobia Hurts Muslim Women the Most

Gov. Cuomo also applauded her qualifications, noting in his nomination announcement her "deep understanding of the everyday issues facing New Yorkers, as well as the complex legal issues that come before the state's highest court."

One of those "complex legal issues" came before the Court of Appeals as recently as last summer: the debate over whether or not a non-biological or non-adoptive parent, such as often in the case of same-sex relationships, has any parental rights. In a landmark decision, Abdus-Salaam wrote the ruling expanding the "needlessly narrow interpretation of the term 'parent.'"

Because of "increasingly varied familial relationships," she wrote last August, the Court established "that where a partner shows by clear and convincing evidence that the parties agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together, the non-biological, non-adoptive partner has standing to seek visitation and custody."

Lambda Legal, the legal organization who represented one of the plaintiffs impacted by that ruling, released a statement on the judge's death last night, in part noting, "Judge Abdus-Salaam saw clearly how damaging it was to keep LGBT parents from their children. We owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude. She touched the lives of many New Yorkers; her legacy will live on."

Abdus-Salaam also penned a decision in 2013 that found that undocumented immigrants should be informed of the possibility of deportation before pleading guilty to felonies. It was a "matter of fundamental fairness," she wrote.

I'll always remember when she was sworn in and they brought out the Koran for her to swear on—that was really impactful.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) released a statement this morning from executive director Afaf Nasher, who said that "Judge Abdus-Salaam was not only a trailblazer in the legal community," but she was also "a dedicated public servant who spent her entire career advocating for the rights of marginalized people."

She continued: "As a member of the bench, Judge Abdus-Salaam continued her life's work, authoring decisions that helped fulfill the often-unrealized promise that New York's laws should provide justice and dignity for all."

Marium Khawaja is the outreach and volunteer coordinator at CAIR New York. She expanded on the impact of Abdus-Salaam's appointment to the state's highest court and her death. "For a lot of us who are Muslim women," she tells Broadly, "she was this great figure to us, especially in the legal system. When she was sworn in, I saw it and I was so excited, my friends were so excited, to finally have someone in the legal branch who represented some aspect of us. I'll always remember when she was sworn in and they brought out the Koran for her to swear on—that was really impactful."

"Honestly, it's such a terrible loss for the state of New York," Khawaja continues, "that someone like this, who was a black woman, who was a Muslim woman, someone who represented three marginalized communities... Losing her changes everything in the system."