Abdus-Salaam, 65, sat on the New York Court of Appeals, and was the first black woman to rise to that bench. The New York Police Department told BuzzFeed News her cause of death will be determined by the medical examiner, but there were no signs of injury or trauma to her body.
She was born in Washington, DC, attended public schools there, then moved to New York to attend Barnard College, according to the New York State Courts. She received her law degree from Columbia University in 1977, then went to work at East Brooklyn Legal Services as a staff attorney.
Abdus-Salaam was elected as a judge in New York City in 1991, then in 1993 was elected to New York County’s Supreme Court. Gov. David Paterson appointed her to the state’s appellate division in 2009, and in 2013 she was appointed and confirmed to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.
At her swearing-in, she was joined by then–attorney general Eric Holder, who was a classmate of hers at Columbia. Her career was defined by a “relentless pursuit of excellence,” he said at the time, and that had been apparent since he met her in the 1970s.
“[She was] intelligent, she was a witty and a great deal of fun to spend time with. Sheila could boogie,” Holder joked.
On Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo described her as a trailblazer who sought to make New York more just and fair for all.
“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,” Cuomo said in a statement. “I was proud to appoint her to the state’s highest court and am deeply saddened by her passing. On behalf of all New Yorkers, I extend my deepest sympathies to her family, loved ones and colleagues during this trying and difficult time.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio described her as a “humble pioneer.”
“My thoughts are with her family,” he tweeted.
Last year, Abdus-Salaam wrote the court’s majority opinion in a case that redefined parental rights to protect LGBT parents without biological ties to their children.
“We owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude,” said a statement from Lamda Legal, which had brought the case. “She touched the lives of many New Yorkers; her legacy will live on.”
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