By Alan Feuer, Matthew Haag and William K. Rashbaum, nytimes.com
Family tragedy surrounded Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam. About three years ago, law enforcement officials said, her brother committed suicide. Last year around this time, her mother died.
On Wednesday, after responding to an emergency call, officers with the New York Police Department’s Harbor Unit found the body of Judge Abdus-Salaam, the first black woman to serve on New York State’s highest court, in the Hudson River in Harlem with no apparent signs of trauma and no indications of foul play. The police are treating her death as a suicide, although an investigation is continuing.
According to one law enforcement official, Judge Abdus-Salaam called her Midtown Manhattan chambers on Tuesday morning to say she would not be coming in because she was not feeling well. When the judge failed to appear on Wednesday, her assistant sent a text to her husband of eight months, who called 911 to report her missing a short time later. Her body was found that afternoon, floating in the river by the shore near West 132nd Street.
The judge was wearing a gray zippered sweater, black sweatpants, a gray T-shirt and New Balance sneakers, the official said. She also had a white watch on her wrist and a MetroCard in her pocket. Investigators do not believe that she had been in the river long.
Judge Abdus-Salaam was last seen leaving her office on Monday evening, and investigators tracked her to the subway — the No. 6 line — at about 8 p.m., the official said. Investigators found the judge’s cellphone in her apartment, another official said, and the door had been locked with keys from the outside. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.
“She was a lovely, genteel lady,” Jonathan Lippman, a former chief judge of New York State, said. “We’re all just shocked. No one has any idea what happened.”
Since 2013, Judge Abdus-Salaam had been one of seven judges on the State Court of Appeals. Before that, she served for about four years as an associate justice on the First Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court, and for 15 years as a State Supreme Court justice in Manhattan. She was previously a lawyer in the New York State attorney general’s office.
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.
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