NEW YORK — The first African-American woman to serve on New York state’s highest court — a judge described as a trailblazer and “humble pioneer” — was found dead Wednesday afternoon in the Hudson River.
Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam was 65. She was also the first female Muslim judge in the U.S.
Police responded to a 911 call about a person floating in the Hudson around 1:45 p.m. They found an unconscious and unresponsive woman, who was later pronounced dead and identified as Abdus-Salaam.
The medical examiner will determine the cause of death, and the case is under investigation, according the New York Police Department.
Abdus-Salaam had been an associate justice on the New York Court of Appeals since 2013.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who appointed her to the court, hailed her as a “trailblazing jurist whose life in public service was in pursuit of a more fair and more just New York for all.”
She had been reported missing by her husband Tuesday, WCBS-TV reported.
Abdus-Salaam’s death came the same week a prominent Chicago judge was killed outside his home Monday. A suspect in that case has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of Judge Raymond Myles.
Seymour W. James Jr., attorney in chief at the Legal Aid Society, said in a statement that the judge’s passing had left many heartbroken.
“She leaves a lasting impact on New York — from her time as a legal services attorney fighting on behalf of low-income families, to her tenure as the first African-American woman to preside on the state’s highest court,” James said.
Born in Washington to working-class parents, Abdus-Salaam grew up with six siblings and attended the district’s public schools.
She became interested in pursuing law after civil rights attorney Frankie Muse Freeman visited her high school.
Abdus-Salaam went to Barnard College for her bachelor’s degree and later received her law degree from Columbia University.
She began her legal career at the East Brooklyn Legal Services and later became an assistant attorney general in the New York State Department of Law for its civil rights and real estate financing bureaus.
She began her judicial career in 1991 and was appointed in 2009 by then-Gov. David Paterson to the Appellate Division, First Department.
“During her time on the bench, Justice Abdus-Salaam earned the respect of all who appeared before her as a thoughtful, thorough, and fair jurist,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement.