Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam’s life was one of personal achievement: She was the first African-American woman to serve on New York state’s highest court. She was a trailblazer and “humble pioneer,” according to those who knew her.
But it was also a life marked by personal tragedy. Her brother committed suicide three years ago around this time of year, two law enforcement sources told CNN on Thursday. Abdus-Salaam, 65, had also been stressed recently at work, the sources said.
Her body was found Wednesday afternoon in the Hudson River. Abdus-Salaam’s death is not considered suspicious, and the investigation points to a possible suicide, the law enforcement sources said.
Detectives did not find a suicide note.
“Obviously, we’re still waiting for the full investigation, but to the extent that the challenges and the stresses in her life contributed to this, it’s a reminder that even the most accomplished people still deal with extraordinary challenges inward, and we don’t get to see that,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters Thursday.
“It is humbling. It’s a sad day. Someone who got so far and was lost so soon.”
Robert Boyce, chief of detectives for the New York police, told reporters that there were no apparent injuries to Abdus-Salaam’s body and that her death does not appear to be criminal in nature.
The judge was last heard from about 9 a.m. Tuesday, according to the sources. Abdus-Salaam’s husband told police his wife’s secretary received a call from the judge saying she wouldn’t be into work that day.
Police responded to a 911 call about a person floating in the Hudson around 1:45 p.m. Wednesday. They found an unconscious and unresponsive woman, who was later pronounced dead and identified as Abdus-Salaam. She was fully clothed in running attire, a black hooded sweatshirt, sweatpants and sneakers.
The medical examiner will determine the cause of death, police said.
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, reported CNN affiliate WCBS-TV in New York.
Tributes for Abdus-Salaam poured in from New York officials.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted: “She was a humble pioneer. My thoughts are with her family.”
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.”
Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, tweeted that he was devastated by the news.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. called her “a true pioneer and leader in the justice system” who “lived up to her reputation of being smart, principled, and rigorously fair.”
“Justice Abdus-Salaam leaves a void not only on the state’s highest bench, but in the criminal justice system as a whole,” he said in a statement.
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.
Gillian Lester, dean of Columbia Law School, said Abdus-Salaam spoke at the school’s “Empowering Women of Color” conference a few weeks ago. On Tuesday, the judge was to be the featured speaker at the annual alumni of color gathering, Lester wrote on the law school website. The event will be postponed “in light of this terrible loss.”
Abdus-Salaam was awarded the law school’s Lawrence A. Wien Prize for Social Responsibility in 2013.
“Sheila Abdus-Salaam set an example for generations to come, as much for her brilliance, moral conviction, and remarkable professional achievements as for her kindness, modesty, and understated yet unfailing generosity,” Lester wrote.