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Sheila Abdus-Salaam: New Yorkers mourn judge's death

Tributes flow in for first black woman to serve as a judge on New York's highest court after unexplained death.

Sheila Abdus-Salaam

Tributes were paid on Thursday to Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first Muslim woman judge in the United States and first black woman to serve on New York's highest court.

Police pulled Abdus-Salaam's fully clothed body from the Hudson River on Wednesday, a day after she was reported missing. The 65-year-old was pronounced dead at the scene. No cause of death has been announced.

There were no signs a crime had been committed in her death, a police spokesman said on Thursday, adding medical examiners are planning an autopsy.

Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo hailed Abdus-Salaam as "a trailblazing jurist whose life in public service was in pursuit of a more fair and more just New York for all".

"As the first African-American woman to be appointed to the state's Court of Appeals, she was a pioneer," Cuomo said. "Through her writings, her wisdom and her unshakable moral compass, she was a force for good whose legacy will be felt for years to come."

'Bright legal mind'

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said her colleague will be "missed deeply".

"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 said.

Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said her example and work on civil rights issues were inspiring to women, Muslims, and African Americans.

"Her story was a story of success, empowerment and inspiration," he said.

The president of the New York State Bar Association, Claire P Gutekunst, noted Abdus-Salaam grew up poor in a family of seven children in Washington, DC, and "rose to become one of the seven judges in New York's highest court, where her intellect, judicial temperament and wisdom earned her wide respect".

Abdus-Salaam graduated from Barnard College and received her law degree from Columbia Law School. She became a public defender in Brooklyn after law school, the New York Times said, representing people who could not afford lawyers.

She went on to serve as a lawyer for New York state government and city's office of labour services. 

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.

She held a series of judicial posts after being elected to a New York City judgeship in 1991.

The New York Times, citing law enforcement officials, reported that her brother committed suicide about three years ago and her mother died last year.

On Twitter and Facebook, some social media users criticised what they called a muted reaction to Abdus-Salaam's death, while others alleged foul play. 


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