New York Appeals Judge Found Dead in the Hudson River

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Sheila Abdus-Salaam, Associate Judge of the Court of Appeals, listens to oral arguments on at the Court of Appeals on Wednesday, June 1, 2016.

The first black woman appointed to the state's highest court has been found dead on the bank of the Hudson River.

Sheila Abdus-Salaam's body was discovered along the riverside near Harlem on Wednesday, a day after she was reported missing, police said.

Police said her body showed no obvious signs of trauma, and they declined to speculate on the cause of her death. The medical examiner planned to study her body to try to determine what killed her.

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who appointed Abdus-Salaam to the state's Court of Appeals in 2013, called her a "trailblazing jurist."

"As the first African-American woman to be appointed to the state's Court of Appeals, she was a pioneer," Cuomo said. "Through her writings, her wisdom and her unshakable moral compass, she was a force for good whose legacy will be felt for years to come."

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said her colleague will be "missed deeply."

"Her personal warmth, uncompromising sense of fairness and bright legal mind were an inspiration to all of us who had the good fortune to know her," DiFiore said.

Former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said he knew Abdus-Salaam for many years. He said her death of was "difficult to understand."

"The court has suffered a terrible blow," he said.

In an interview with WNYC, Lippman said what stands out in his mind was Abdus-Salaam's humanity.

"That lovely personality, so smart, and so intelligent, yet so gentle and kind," he said, adding that while she was a role model for all lawyers.

Abdus-Salaam, who was 65 years old, graduated from Barnard College and received her law degree from Columbia Law School. She started her career as a staff attorney for East Brooklyn Legal Services and served as a judge in Manhattan state Supreme Court for 14 years, according to the state Office of Court Administration's website.

Adrienne Holder, with the Legal Aid Society, said Abdus-Salaam was focused on inclusion.

"She was always very thoughtful and insightful about issues around access to justice and making sure that we were very responsive to the needs of low-income New Yorkers," she said.

The president of the New York State Bar Association, Claire P. Gutekunst, said Abdus-Salaam grew up poor in a family of seven children in Washington, D.C., and "rose to become one of the seven judges in New York's highest court, where her intellect, judicial temperament and wisdom earned her wide respect."

Her loss is also being felt in the local Muslim community.

Afaf Nasher, executive director of New York's chapter of the Council on American-Islamic relations, said that in the face of ongoing discrimination against Muslims, Abdus-Salaam stood out as a role model.

"We need strong judges, strong legal minds who are going to defend civil liberties," she said. "To the extent that she defended civil liberties throughout her career, that plays into the Muslim community and what we're facing right now."

With additional reporting by Annmarie Fertoli

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the wake of Judge Abdus-Salaam’s death, it was widely reported – including by WNYC – that she was the first female Muslim judge in the country. Whether she is Muslim or not has since been brought into question, prompting some publications to issue retractions. Our reporting has been inconclusive. In a statement, the spokesperson for the New York State Court of Appeals said she was not Muslim. However, a close friend and colleague told WNYC that Judge Abdus-Salaam converted to Islam years ago, but was not practicing at the time of her death.