N.Y. appeals court judge found dead near Hudson River

Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first African-American woman to serve on New York’s highest court, was found dead Wednesday on the bank of the Hudson River, police said.

Abdus-Salaam, 65, was discovered floating fully clothed on the Manhattan side of the river just before 2 p.m., by the Henry Hudson Parkway near W. 132nd St. — just a mile from her central Harlem home.

Her husband, who reported her missing Tuesday morning, was brought in to identify the body, sources said.

Police sources said there were no signs of obvious trauma or injuries indicating foul play.

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Abdus-Salaam, who made history as the country’s first female Muslim judge, was nominated in 2013 to serve on the state Court of Appeals by Gov. Cuomo.

“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.

During her confirmation hearings before the state legislature, Abdus-Salaam drew a chuckle from lawmakers when she said she was first inspired to become a lawyer as a child watching the television shows “Perry Mason” and “East Side/West Side.”

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“Being a judge is an honor and involves tremendous responsibility to the litigants and to society,” she said before her unanimous approval.

“She was highly respected and an inspiration to so many throughout her career,” state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement. “Her passing leaves a void that will be difficult to fill.”

Abdus-Salaam’s colleagues also mourned her death.

“The New York Court of Appeals was saddened to learn today of the passing of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, a most beloved colleague since she joined the Court in May 2013,” Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said on behalf of the New York Court of Appeals. “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.

“Sheila’s smile could light up the darkest room. The people of New York can be grateful for her distinguished public service. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family, and we will miss her greatly,” she added.

Abdus-Salaam, one of seven children born to a working class family in Washington, D.C., graduated from Barnard College and received her J.D. from the Columbia University School of Law, where she was a classmate of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Gov. Cuomo appointed Abdus-Salaam (pictured) to the Court of Appeals in May 2013.

(Hans Pennink/AP)

“Sheila could boogie, but there was a seriousness about her, a strong sense of purpose at a relatively young age,” Holder recalled at her swearing-in ceremony. “She never forgot where she came from.”

Before her nomination, she was a judge in Manhattan Supreme Court for 14 years, an attorney with East Brooklyn Legal Services Corp., the New York City Law Department and the city Office of Labor Services.

“She was a conscientious, thoughtful judge who never lost her humility. This is an unspeakable tragedy,” city Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter told the Daily News.

“Our hearts ache with the passing of Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam – a judicial stalwart renowned for her intellect, and commitment to the law, morality, fairness, and justice,” the Legal Aid Society said in a statement.

The last court session she likely attended was March 29, where the panel of seven appeals judges heard three cases. The next session was scheduled for April 25.

A longtime court employee who’s known Abdus-Salaam for years said the divorcee had recently remarried and was very happy.

No one answered the door at the judge’s Harlem brownstone Wednesday evening, where a sign reading “Peace to all who enter here” welcomed visitors.

Neighbors were stunned by the sudden death.

“The sort of person who would harm nobody. Not a bad bone in her body, you wouldn’t imagine anything like this ever happening to her,” said Pat Miller, 56. “There was no malice. She never flaunted her power. You wouldn’t know unless you asked her. Totally unbiased.”

Reverend James Moore, 65, who lives next door, described Abdus-Salaam as a “lovely person.”

“I’m very shocked that something like this would occur,” he said. “What frightens me is, how can something like this happen.”

The medical examiner will determine the cause of death and the investigation is ongoing, police said.  

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