The first Muslim woman to become a sitting judge in the United States was found dead in the Hudson River, floating off the shores of Harlem, on Wednesday.
Sheila Abdus-Salaam, 65, was an associate judge on New York’s Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. She was also the first black woman to serve on that bench.
Abdus-Salaam had been reported missing on Tuesday, but a spokesperson for the New York Police Department was unable to specify what time. On Wednesday, police responded to a 911 call at 1:45 p.m. regarding a woman floating in the water near 132nd Street in Upper Manhattan. When police arrived, they found her to be unconscious and unresponsive, and emergency medical services pronounced her dead.
Police said there was no visible evidence of foul play but are awaiting the results of the autopsy.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo hailed Abdus-Salaam as a “trailblazing jurist whose life in public service was in pursuit of a more fair and more just New York for all.”
Abdus-Salaam was one of seven judges on New York state’s Court of Appeals. Prior to that, she was an associate justice on the First Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court, and she’d spent 15 years serving as a State Supreme Court justice in Manhattan.
Abdus-Salaam came from a working-class background. When Cuomo nominated her to the highest court in 2013, the New York Times recalled, he highlighted her background and her “deep understanding of the everyday issues facing New Yorkers.” One of seven children, Abdus-Salaam grew up poor in Washington, D.C., and went on to study law at Columbia University.
Last August, Abdus-Salaam wrote a groundbreaking decision in a case that expanded the definition of parenthood and cleared the way for same-sex couples to have equal parenting rights — overturning a 25-year-old policy that limited the rights of parents who did not share biological ties to their children.
According to the Times, Abdus-Salaam regularly sided with “vulnerable parties,” including “the poor, impoverished immigrants, and people with mental illnesses.”