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First African-American Female Judge On New York's Top Court Found Dead

Associate Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam of the New York State Court of Appeals. Abdus-Salaam was found dead Wednesday at the age of 65.<strong></strong>
Hans Pennink
Associate Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam of the New York State Court of Appeals. Abdus-Salaam was found dead Wednesday at the age of 65.

Updated at 11:45 a.m. Friday

Associate Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first African-American woman to be appointed to New York's Court of Appeals, was found dead on Wednesday in the Hudson River.

She had been reported missing from her home in Harlem.

The New York Times reports:

"Officers with the New York Police Department's Harbor Unit responded about 1:45 p.m. to a report of a person floating by the shore near West 132nd Street in Upper Manhattan.

"Judge Abdus-Salaam, 65, was taken to a pier on the Hudson River and was pronounced dead by paramedics shortly after 2 p.m.

"The police were investigating how she ended up in the river, and it was not clear how long Judge Abdus-Salaam, who lived nearby in Harlem, had been missing.

"There were no signs of trauma on her body, the police said. She was fully clothed.

"A law enforcement official said investigators had found no signs of criminality. Her husband identified her body."

It's not clear whether Abdus-Salaam may have been the first female Muslim to serve as a U.S. judge. The Times initially quoted Zakiyyah Muhammad, founding director of the Institute of Muslim American Studies, as saying she became the first when she joined the New York State Supreme Court in 1994. But the newspaper later clarified that "her name led to confusion about whether or not she was Muslim. Gary Spencer, a spokesman for the Court of Appeals, said she had told him that she was not."

Muhammad has not responded to NPR's request for comment.

In 2013, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., appointed Abdus-Salaam to the state's highest court, known as the Court of Appeals.

In a statement, Cuomo said she was a pioneer with an "unshakable moral compass."

Abdus-Salaam's nomination was part of a push by Cuomo to diversify the court.

When Judge Rowan Wilson joined the court this year, it was the first time the state's highest court had two African-American judges serving on it.

In a statement, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said Abdus-Salaam's "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."

The Court of Appeals has been on recess since the end of last month. The court is due back in session in less than two weeks.

Abdus-Salaam received her law degree from Columbia Law School, where she attended classes with Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general.

Holder was in attendance for her historic swearing-in at the Court of Appeals, as the New York Post reports:

"Holder described how she had 'defined herself by her relentless pursuit of excellence' — while also managing to be a great dancer.

" 'Sheila could boogie,' Holder joked at the time. 'She was witty and a great deal of fun to spend time with.'

"Abdus-Salaam went on to note how unlikely her and Holder's professional achievements in law would have been four decades ago.

" 'Who knew that we would both attain such high positions, and that you would be the first black United States attorney general, and I would be the first black woman on the New York Court of Appeals?' she told him with a big smile."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 12, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this post said that Gov. Mario Cuomo appointed Sheila Abdus-Salaam to New York's Court of Appeals. In fact, it was Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Doreen McCallister