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Trailblazing Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam found dead in the Hudson River

Herb Boyd | 4/13/2017, 10:54 a.m.
Statements of sympathy and grief for Justice Sheila Adbus-Salaam, in many ways reflecting the ordinary and extraordinary people she touched, ...
Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam PIX 11 News

Statements of sympathy and grief for Justice Sheila Adbus-Salaam, in many ways reflecting the ordinary and extraordinary people she touched, are coming in from all walks of life. Most of them expressing shock that the esteemed justice of the State Court of Appeals, the first African American woman and Muslim woman to preside on the state’s highest court, was dead, her body found floating in the Hudson River Wednesday afternoon.

Justice Abdus-Salaam, 65, was fully clothed in running attire and there were no signs of foul play when her unresponsive body was pulled from the river near the Fairway Supermarket and 132nd Street.

The police are speculating that she may have committed suicide, if so she left no note. According to sources, she was last heard from on Tuesday morning when her husband said her secretary received a call from her saying she wouldn’t be into work that day.

She may have been undergoing work-related stress, the investigation into her death revealed, and that her brother committed suicide three years ago around this same time of year.

Meanwhile, the medical examiner will determine the cause of death.

The cause of her life was to serve the people and in this she was a “trailblazer,” according to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who appointed her to the court in 2013. Her life in public service, he said, “was in pursuit of a [fairer] and more just New York for all.”

Former Governor David Paterson said he first met Justice Abdus-Salaam 45 years ago. “She was always very spiritual and a simply wonderful person to be around.” He said the last time he saw her “was at a Columbia Barnard Black student reunion in August 2016.

“But, with all her intellectual brilliance and legal scholarship,” Paterson added, “what most stood out was her personal grace, the way she treated other people, her down to earth manner and the remarkable way in which she carried herself. To paraphrase a favorite poem of mine by Rudyard Kipling, Sheila Abdus-Salaam was one who could walk with Kings and retain the common touch.  I will miss her for the rest of my life.”

Speaker Carl Heastie was equally distraught and heartbroken upon hearing of her death. “She was highly respected and an inspiration to so many throughout her career. Her passing leaves a void that will be difficult to fill. This is a sad day for all New Yorkers,” he said in a statement to the press.

“Our hearts ache with the passing of Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam – a judicial stalwart renowned for her intellect, and commitment to the law, morality, fairness, and justice,” said Seymour W. James, Jr., attorney-in-chief at the Legal Aid Society. “She leaves a lasting impact on New York – from her time as a legal services attorney fighting on behalf of low-income families, to her tenure as the first African-American woman to preside on the State's highest court.” 

“I am deeply saddened by the loss of State Court of Appeals Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam. In her we have lost a public servant, a leader, and a woman with an immutable moral code,” said Assemblywoman Diana C. Richardson. “Salaam's contributions to our community will forever have a lasting impact on the many lives she touched as a champion of impartiality.”