MANHATTAN (CN) — Three months after the first black woman to sit on New York’s highest court appeared dead in the Hudson River, the city’s medical examiner corroborated suspicions that she killed herself by drowning.
Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam was the first black woman to sit on the New York Court of Appeals, where she wrote the lead opinion in watershed rulings on topics ranging from same-sex parenting to affordable housing.
Her death at 65 sparked shock and grief in New York’s legal community, as did early reports that police suspected her death to be a suicide.
After months of investigation, New York’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reached the same findings in a sparse and unsigned statement.
“The cause of death is drowning,” it states. “The manner of death is suicide.”
Known for protecting the vulnerable, Abdus-Salaam stood up for tenants statewide with a ruling protecting an 80-year-old widow.
“Affordable housing is an essential need,” Abdus-Salaam wrote in 2014, just over a year after her appointment to the appeals court. She ordered creditors to stand down in their threats to evict the rent-stabilized tenant.
Two years later, she handed a landmark victory to same-sex parents in a ruling favoring the nonbiological parent of two lesbian couples.
Reversing 25 years of precedent that she found outdated and discriminatory, Abdus-Salaam expanded the definition of a parent to accommodate “a growing body of social science [that] reveals the trauma children suffer as a result of separation from a primary attachment figure — such as a de facto parent — regardless of that figure’s biological or adoptive ties to the children.”
The court’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore recalled Abdus-Salaam at the time as a “most beloved colleague.”
“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,” DiFiore wrote. “Sheila’s smile could light up the darkest room. The people of New York can be grateful for her distinguished public service.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed Judge Paul Feinman as her replacement in late June.