She was the first African-American woman to sit on New York State’s highest court. She was also widely hailed as the nation’s first female Muslim judge — or at least one of the first judges with a Muslim surname.
And now the New York Police Department is trying to determine whether Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, whose body was found floating off Manhattan in the Hudson River, took her own life.
"It's too early to tell right now," NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said Thursday. "We've spoken to many people in her family about her history. We don't believe she was on any drugs at all. It was a surprise to everyone."
The 65-year-old judge, who lived in nearby Harlem, had spent the weekend in New Jersey with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Jacobs, and spoke with her assistant on Tuesday morning, Boyce said.
Abdus-Salaam was discovered on Wednesday afternoon in the water near West 132nd Street. She had a MetroCard in her pocket and there were no obvious signs of trauma on her clothed body.
"We don't believe she was in the water for a long time," Boyce said.
The New York City Medical Examiner said it too was "unable to confirm the cause and manner of death at this time," a spokesperson told NBC News.
Meanwhile, tributes poured in for the respected jurist who Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called a “trailblazer.”
“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,” he said in a statement “I join all those who knew Justice Abdus-Salaam in mourning this terrible loss.”
“She was a force for good whose legacy will be felt for years to come."
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called her a “humble pioneer.” And Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Abdus-Salaam possessed an “unshakable moral compass.”
“She was a force for good whose legacy will be felt for years to come,” Cuomo said.
Asked what makes her a good judge, Abdus-Salaam said in a 2012 profile for Columbia Law School Magazine, “I think people consider me to be a judge who listens and gives them a fair shot.”
Born Sheila Turner in Washington on March 14, 1952, Abdus-Salaam was the great-granddaughter of a slave. She took her first husband’s last name and continued to use it professionally after that marriage ended, according to the Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History.
Despite being widely hailed by that encyclopedia and several published reports as “the first female Muslim U.S. judge,” it was unclear if she was been a practitioner of Islam. A spokesman for the Court of Appeals told the New York Times she was not Muslim.
One of six children raised by working class parents, Abdus-Salaam attended public schools and first became interested in the law by watching the TV show “Perry Mason.” But she found her calling when Frankie Muse Freeman, a civil rights attorney and the first woman to be appointed to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, visited her high school.
“She was riveting,” Abdus-Salaam recalled in the profile. “She was doing what I wanted to do: using the law to help people.”
The judge also gave her mother credit for pushing her to succeed.
“If my mother wasn’t such a smart and resourceful woman, I might have ended up in foster care or worse,” Abdus-Salaam recalled in 2015 at a Black History Month celebration. “Although she dropped out of school, my mother realized that a good education would help us escape the poverty that we were trapped in.”
Abdus-Salaam earned her bachelor’s degree at Barnard College in 1974 and graduated three years later from Columbia Law School where she was classmates with future U.S. Attorney Eric Holder, who remembered as serious but fun-loving.
“Sheila could boogie, but there was a seriousness about her, a strong sense of purpose at a relatively young age. She never forgot where she came from.”
“Sheila could boogie, but there was a seriousness about her, a strong sense of purpose at a relatively young age,” he said. “She never forgot where she came from.”
Her first job out of college was as a public defender in Brooklyn where she often represented poor defendants and immigrants in landlord versus tenant disputes.
“The job was not just legal, but also part social work, and some part education,” she said in the profile.
Later, she was an assistant attorney general in the New York State Department of Law’s civil rights where she won an anti-discrimination suit on behalf of 30 female city bus drivers who had been wrongly passed over for promotions.
In 1994, Abdus-Salaam started serving on the New York Supreme Court. Then in 2009, Gov. David Paterson appointed her associate justice to the New York Appellate Division of the Supreme Court.
In 2013, Cuomo nominated Abdus-Salaam to fill a vacancy on the New York Court of Appeals and praised her “deep understanding of the everyday issues facing New Yorkers.” And after the state Senate confirmed her nomination, Abdus-Salaam received a standing ovation.
She quickly distinguished herself as a champion of the poor and downtrodden and as a hedge against the powerful and politically-connected corporations. She also wrote a landmark decision that gave the non-biological parent in a same sex couple visitation rights after a breakup.
Abdus-Salaam was married three times. Her second husband was James Hatcher. And she is survived by Jacobs, whom she married in 2016 and who is a minister at the Episcopal Diocese of Newark.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story described Abdus-Salaam as the nation's first female Muslim judge but it appears that she never converted to Islam.