First female US Muslim judge found dead in New York river

Police say no signs of criminality found at this stage in case Sheila Abdus-Salaam (65)

A groundbreaking legal figure who became the first Muslim woman to serve as a US judge has been found dead in New York’s Hudson River, police said.

Sheila Abdus-Salaam (65) was an associate judge on New York state’s highest court and the first African-American woman to serve on that bench.

Her body was found when officers from the New York Police Department’s Harbour Unit responded to a report of a person floating by the shore near West 132nd Street in Upper Manhattan at about 1.45pm .

Ms Abdus-Salaam was taken to a pier on the Hudson River and was pronounced dead by paramedics shortly after 2pm.


It was not clear how long Ms Abdus-Salaam, who lived nearby in Harlem, had been missing or how she ended up in the river.

There were no signs of trauma on her body, the police said. She was fully clothed. A law enforcement official said investigators had found no signs of criminality. Her husband identified her body.

Since 2013, Ms Abdus-Salaam had been one of seven judges on the state Court of Appeals.

Zakiyyah Muhammad, the founding director of the Institute of Muslim American Studies, said Ms Abdus-Salaam became the first Muslim judge in the US when she started serving on the state Supreme Court in 1994.

‘Moral compass’

Governor Andrew Cuomo said Ms Abdus-Salaam was a pioneer with an “unshakable moral compass.”

“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.

On the court, Ms Abdus-Salaam was seen as a reliable and steadfast liberal voice, regularly siding with vulnerable parties such as the poor, immigrants and people with mental illnesses, 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.

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.”


In an interview in 2014 about black history, Ms Abdus-Salaam said 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, Virginia, 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 Holder, the former US attorney general, was a classmate of Ms Abdus-Salaam at Columbia Law School and sang her praises at her swearing-in ceremony in 2013.

It was clear that she was intelligent, serious and witty, he said at the time, according to the AP. But she could have fun, too: “Sheila could boogie,” he said.

New York Times