Zakiyyah Muhammad, the founding director of the Institute of Muslim American Studies, said Judge Abdus-Salaam became the first Muslim judge in the United States when she started serving on the State Supreme Court in 1994.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement on Wednesday that Judge Abdus-Salaam was a pioneer with an “unshakable moral compass.” He added, “Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam was a trailblazing jurist whose life in public service was in pursuit of a more fair and more just New York for all.”
In nominating her to the highest court in 2013, Mr. Cuomo praised her “working-class roots” and her “deep understanding of the everyday issues facing New Yorkers.” Her nomination was part of a push by Mr. Cuomo to diversify the court. When another judge, Rowan D. Wilson, joined the court this year, it was the first time the Court of Appeals had two African-American judges in its 169-year history.
On the court, Judge Abdus-Salaam was among the most reliable and steadfast liberal voices, regularly siding with vulnerable parties — the poor, impoverished immigrants and people with mental illnesses, for instance — against more powerful and established interests. She also tended to lean toward injured parties who brought claims of misconduct, fraud or breach of contract against wealthy corporations.
Among her colleagues, she was admired for her thoughtfulness, her candor and her finely crafted and restrained writing style. She was not one to use her decisions as a soapbox to make high-sounding political points or to wax poetic, even when her rulings were precedent-setting.
In a statement, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said, “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.”
Last summer, Judge Abdus-Salaam wrote an important decision, 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.
But Judge Abdus-Salaam wrote that the previous ruling had become “unworkable when applied to increasingly varied familial relationships.” In a tightly reasoned decision, she determined that nonbiological parents did have standing to seek custody if they showed “by clear and convincing evidence that all parties agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together.”
The Court of Appeals last heard oral arguments at the end of March and issued opinions on April 4. It is scheduled to be back in session on April 25.
Judge Abdus-Salaam grew up in Washington, one of seven children in a poor family, and earned her law degree at Columbia University in 1977. After law school, she became a public defender in Brooklyn, representing people who could not afford lawyers, and then served as an assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York State attorney general’s office. In one of her first cases, she won an anti-discrimination suit for more than 30 female New York City bus drivers who had been denied promotions.
Seymour W. James Jr., the attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society, the nation’s largest provider of free legal services, said he had first met Judge Abdus-Salaam in the early 1980s, when she worked at the Civil Rights Bureau. Mr. James said her upbringing and years spent representing the poor and disenfranchised had shaped her perspective on the bench. “She was a strong believer in equal rights and equal access to justice,” he said in an interview.
In an interview in 2014 about black history, Judge Abdus-Salaam said that she had become interested in her family’s history as a young girl in public school and that her research had led her to discover that her great-grandfather was a slave in Virginia.
“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. “It tells you and me what it is to know who we are and what we can do.”
Eric H. Holder Jr., the former United States attorney general, was classmates with Judge Abdus-Salaam at Columbia Law School and sang her praises at her swearing-in ceremony in 2013, according to The Associated Press.
It was clear that she was intelligent, serious and witty, he said at the time, according to The Associated Press. But she could have fun, too: “Sheila could boogie,” he said.
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