On Wednesday, April 12, Sheila Abdus-Salaam’s body was found in the Hudson River. Abdus-Salaam served as an associate judge on the New York Court of Appeals, and she was the first Black woman to be appointed to this court, which is the highest in the state of New York. In lieu of a traditional staff editorial, the Editorial Board of The Miscellany News wishes to dedicate this space to celebrating the life of this inspiring local and national figure.
Not much is known about the circumstances surrounding Abdus-Salaam’s death. It is not yet confirmed what the cause of death was. As the investigation continues, we feel it is more appropriate to highlight her accomplishments instead of engaging in speculation about her death.
As one of seven children from a working-class family, Abdus-Salaam’s path to success was not easy. She attended Barnard College for her undergraduate degree, then studied law at Columbia University to earn her J.D. She immediately utilized her position as a public defender as a means to defend those who could not defend themselves, working in Brooklyn for low-income people at Brooklyn Legal Services. When she was an assistant state attorney general, she worked in the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York Attorney General’s office. She was also appointed a New York State Supreme Court justice. Before her final position, she was an associate justice in the First Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court. Finally, in 2013, New York Governor Cuomo nominated Abdus-Salaam to the New York Court of Appeals, where she served until her death last week.
Not only was Abdus-Salaam the first Black woman to serve in this prestigious position, but she also paved the way for others to follow. Associate Judge on New York State Court of Appeals Rowan D. Wilson joined her on the court this year, and it was the first time that the Court of Appeals has ever had two Black justices.
Throughout her career, Abdus-Salaam was a part of many important decisions that demonstrated her dedication to making the legal system more just for lower-income people and people within marginalized groups. Last summer, the decision of Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C. gained attention as a major moment for the LGBTQ+ community. Abdus-Salaam wrote the decision for this ruling that determined that a parent does not legally have to be biological in order to earn custody rights post-separation. In this decision, she asserted that the previous law was “unworkable when applied to increasingly varied familial relationships” (The New York Times, “Sheila Abdus-Salaam, Judge on New York’s Top Court, Is Found Dead in Hudson River,” 04.12.2017). This endowed same-sex couples with fundamental rights as parents in New York.
One of her other major decisions brought crucial protection to immigrants. In 2013, the same year she was appointed to the Court of Appeals, the court overturned a previous ruling that New York judges did not have to inform immigrant defendants that they may be deported if they plead guilty to a felony. Abdus-Salaam also wrote the decision for the majority in this ruling.
The death of Abdus-Salaam is a shocking and tragic loss that should be being treated as such. However, the media coverage has been half-hearted, even hasty: Many sources, including the Washington Post and The New York Times, have updated their articles with corrections of basic facts that should have been known about this prominent woman. For example, both the Washington Post and Bustle incorrectly reported that she was Muslim, when this information has not yet been confirmed true or false. Bustle has not yet corrected this misreporting. We feel that Abdus-Salaam is not getting the respect she deserves in both a lack of coverage about her death and a lack of sensitivity in the coverage that does exist. This is a time to mourn the loss of a woman who did important work and paved the way for her successors to be able to continue her work.
—The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.