Remembering Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam

April 13, 2017, 2:14 PM UTC
Sheila Abdus-Salaam
Sheila Abdus-Salaam, Associate Judge of the Court of Appeals, listens to oral arguments on whether criminal defendants should be allowed to use allegations made in civil rights lawsuits against police witnesses to question their credibility during cross-examination at the Court of Appeals on Wednesday, June 1, 2016, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)
Hans Pennink — AP

raceAhead is taking a moment to remember a beloved jurist, Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, an associate judge on New York State’s highest court and the first African-American woman to serve on that bench. She became the first-ever Muslim woman jurist in 1994 when she began serving on the State Supreme Court.

She was found dead in the Hudson River yesterday. Authorities found no sign of foul play. She was 65.

Lest the mysterious circumstances of her death overshadow her life, let’s talk about that for now.

From the New York Times:

On the court, Judge Abdus-Salaam was 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. She also tended to lean toward injured parties who brought claims of misconduct, fraud or breach of contract against wealthy corporations.

She was nominated to the state’s highest court in 2013 by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who praised her “working-class roots” and her “deep understanding of the everyday issues facing New Yorkers.”

She was best known, at least recently, for a landmark decision last summer known as Brooke S.B. v Elizabeth A.C.C., which expanded the definition of parenthood, particularly for same-sex couples. The case involved a sad dispute between two women, one who had conceived a child through artificial insemination, and later sought to prevent her partner from continuing her relationship with their son. She wrote: “[T]he definition of ‘parent’ established by this court 25 years ago in Alison D. has become unworkable when applied to increasingly varied familial relationships.” The decision affirmed that a caretaker who was not related to or a legal guardian of a child had real rights. “[W]here a partner shows by clear and convincing evidence that the parties agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together, the nonbiological, nonadoptive partner has standing to seek visitation and custody.”

The decision was a powerful nod to the complexity of life in a world where some people remain invisible in the eyes of the law.

She grew up poor, one of seven kids, and became an exemplary public defender before she moved up the ranks. But she came from someplace and that mattered to her. She was the great-granddaughter of slaves. “That’s important,” she says in a short and charming video about the importance of knowing one’s own history. “All the way from Arrington, Va., where my family was the property of someone else, to my sitting on the highest court of the State of New York is amazing and huge. And it tells you and me what it is to know who we are and what we can do.”

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