Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first female Muslim judge in U.S. history and the first African-American woman to serve on New York’s highest court, was found dead, floating in the Hudson River on Wednesday.
Authorities say she had been reported missing by her husband Tuesday morning, before her fully clothed body was found at 1:45 p.m. the next day. Officers say no form of criminality was shown and her husband identified the body.
Abdus-Salaam, 65, was originally from D.C. and grew up in a family of seven. She earned her law degree at Columbia University in 1977 — attending the same time as former attorney general Eric Holder — before becoming a public defender in Brooklyn. One of her landmark cases was winning an anti-discrimination suit for more than 30 female New York City bus drivers who had been denied promotions.
“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,” she said in a 2014 interview about Black history. “It tells you and me what it is to know who we are and what we can do.”
According to The New York Times, Judge Abdus-Salaam wrote an important decision last summer, Matter of Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C., that expanded the definition of what it means to be a parent, overturning a previous ruling. For 25 years, the court had held that the nonbiological parent in a same-sex couple had no standing to seek custody or visitation rights after a breakup.
In a statement, Governor Andrew Cuomo sent his condolences and spoke highly of the judge he nominated for the role in the Court of Appeals in 2013.
“As the first African-American woman to be appointed to the state’s Court of Appeals, she was a pioneer,” Cuomo said in a statement Wednesday. “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.
“On behalf of all New Yorkers, I extend my deepest sympathies to her family, loved ones and colleagues during this trying and difficult time,” the governor added.