[Above]  Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam found dead in the Hudson River in NYC.

It was none other than Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan who tried to dissuade Sheila Abdus-Salaam from continuing her law studies at Columbia University.

Sheila Abdus-Salaam


He publicly upbraided her and another female student during a service at a Harlem mosque, mocking the African-American “sisters” for attending “white” universities that he called bastions of the “devil.”

It was the mid-1970s, and law student Abdus-Salaam, then known as Sheila Turner, and a friend had just applied to become members of the Nation of Islam.

Paula Madison and Paula Madison

“It wasn’t about religion,” recalled the friend, Paula Madison, from her home in California last week. “We shared a passion to better our communities and for us, the Nation of Islam was an organization that we felt we could work within.”

‘Sheila never drank, she never smoked, and she was a vegetarian, but boy did she like to dance.’ – Paula Madison

Despite the dressing-down in front of some 400 people, Abdus-Salaam laughed it off. She continued at Columbia Law School, where former US Attorney General Eric Holder was one of her classmates.

The irony, according to Madison, was that after the service, “a staggering number of brothers” sought out Abdus-Salaam for legal advice.

And she helped all of them, Madison said.

Abdus -Salaam, who became the first African-American woman to be appointed to the Court of Appeals, New York state’s highest court, was found dead in the Hudson River nearly two weeks ago. The NYPD had initially believed they were dealing with a suicide, and still lean toward that conclusion, but last week said they would treat the death as suspicious.

They say they don’t know how the judge, clad in sneakers and workout clothes, ended up in the water. An autopsy revealed she had water in her lungs, an indication that she was still alive when she hit the water. It also showed, The New York Times reported Saturday, that her neck was bruised. Officials said the bruising raises the possibility she had been choked sometime — even days earlier — before entering the river, or the bruising could have occurred during the body’s retrieval.

Cops said she was spotted on footage from a security camera on West 131st Street near her Harlem brownstone late on the evening of April 11, and appeared to be heading toward the river, a half-mile from where she was discovered in shallow water on the afternoon of the next day.

Friends and family members contacted by The Post say they are shocked by the judge’s death. And many of them say they simply don’t believe that the “very positive” 65-year-old woman, “a friend to all of her friends,” who loved nothing better than to dance and sing all night, could have taken her own life.

“She was a wonderful person with a great sense of humor,” Sharif Abdus-Salaam, the judge’s first husband, told The Post last week. “I just don’t believe she killed herself.”

But one friend, who spoke with her several weeks before she died, said she sounded tired, and had confessed she was having trouble sleeping — although she was still making her customary treks to the nearby Harlem YMCA, where she regularly swam laps.

Other friends suggested that she struggled with the pressure of a heavy caseload and speaking engagements, the Times reported.

Those who knew the judge understood that April was a bittersweet month for her. It was in April 2014 that her beloved, younger brother Benny committed suicide after a long and very painful battle with cancer. Her mother, 92, died in April two years earlier of natural causes. Authorities had initially and erroneously said it, too, was a suicide.

Yet she had also reached the pinnacle of her legal career in the month of April, in 2013, when Gov. Cuomo nominated her to the seven-member state Court of Appeals after the death of Judge Theodore T. Jones.

After her death, Cuomo called Abdus-Salaam “a trailblazing jurist whose life in public service was in pursuit of a more fair and more just New York for all.”

But while focused and committed in the courtroom, her personal life was tumultuous at times. A painful battle with cancer in her late 30s had dissuaded her from having children. She had divorced three husbands, the last one in 2005 in a “contested” legal battle that dragged on for two years. And last summer, she married Gregory Jacobs, her fourth husband and a fellow Columbia alum with whom she had recently reconnected.

Sheila Turner was born on March 14, 1952, in Washington, DC, where her working-class parents toiled as government bureaucrats. The great-granddaughter of a slave, she was raised a Catholic and was close to her six brothers and sisters and her mother.

She told interviewers that she first became interested in the law after watching episodes of “Perry Mason,” and became determined to become a lawyer at 13, when the crusading civil rights attorney Frankie Muse Freeman paid a visit to her public school to discuss the movement.

“She was riveting,” said Abdus-Salaam in a 2012 profile in Columbia Law School Magazine. “She was doing what I wanted to do: using the law to help people.”

After high school, she went to Barnard College, where she earned an economics degree in 1974. There, she became a student activist and even sued the state Board of Regents to maintain all-black dorms at elite colleges. She herself lived in an all-black “corridor” in a Barnard dorm. And though the lawsuit fizzled when the lead plaintiffs in the case graduated, it was an early sign of Abdus-Salaam’s focus and determination, a friend told The Post.

Despite being a serious student, she loved to have a good time, recalled Madison, who came to the city from upstate Vassar College to attend James Brown concerts with Turner when they were in their early 20s.

“Sheila never drank, she never smoked, and she was a vegetarian, but boy did she like to dance,” said Madison.

Turner graduated from Columbia Law School in 1977 and married college boyfriend Ed Michael, who had changed his name to Sharif Abdus-Salaam after joining the Nation of Islam.

“When she finished law school, she didn’t go into a big corporation like a lot of law-school graduates; she went to help poor people with their needs,” Sharif Abdus-Salaam told The Post.

Sheila Abdus-Salaam’s first job was representing the poor in landlord-tenant disputes and immigration matters in Bushwick, Brownsville and East New York, as a lawyer at Brooklyn Legal Services. In the early part of her career, she won an anti-discrimination case for a group of women bus drivers in the city who had been denied promotions.

Although Abdus-Salaam would eventually leave the Nation of Islam and divorce her first husband after seven years of marriage, she kept her Muslim last name, which translates as “Servant of the all peaceable” in Arabic.

“Philosophically, surnames were not important because the names our fathers got were passed down from slave owners,” said Madison, who remained a close friend for more than 40 years.

After the divorce, Abdus-Salaam also kept the Harlem townhouse that she had bought for $6,000 in 1980 with her former husband, according to public records.

The house held special significance for Abdus-Salaam. As a newly minted crusading lawyer, she was determined to help save the historic black neighborhood, which had hit such hard times by the late 1970s that the city was offering to sell abandoned homes for $1.

According to Madison, Abdus-Salaam went door-to-door trying to convince desperate owners to sell their homes in the then-graffiti- and garbage-strewn neighborhood.

Residents who could no longer afford to pay city taxes were abandoning their homes. For the building that was to become her home, Abdus-Salaam offered to pay the overdue taxes on 113 West 131st St., a narrow, three-story brownstone, in addition to offering several thousand dollars for the property, which was exponentially more than the owners could hope to get from the city, Madison told The Post.

“We were not legacy kids,” said Madison, who was raised by a single mother on welfare in Harlem. “We grew up poor and the best asset we had was our brains.”

When Abdus-Salaam decided to become a judge, she began attending political events in the neighborhood, where she met her second husband. Transit Authority manager James Hatcher was the son of Andrew Hatcher, an associate press secretary to President John F. Kennedy and the founder of 100 Black Men of America, a civil-rights group.

In 1990, the couple bought a townhouse on Striver’s Row, a cluster of elegant townhomes on 138th and 139th Streets in Harlem that were built in the 19th century for the city’s elite. A year later, the home was used as a set in Spike Lee’s film “Jungle Fever.” Six years after that, in 1997, Hatcher filed for divorce.

Madison told The Post that, as with Abdus-Salaam’s first divorce, there was no animosity and the couple had simply drifted apart.

By then Abdus-Salaam was already four years into her tenure as a state Supreme Court justice.

And while her career was steadily rising, her personal life appeared fraught. She waged a very painful battle with uterine cancer, although she was surrounded by friends and family, including nieces and nephews and her long-term tenant and closest friend, Donna Knight.

When her health improved, Abdus-Salaam began to take regular trips, including an African safari with a group of 10 female friends, including Knight and Madison.

“Starting in about 1991, a group of us started having regular get-togethers, like slumber parties, at our homes,” recalled Madison, who worked as news director at NBC and later became an executive vice president at the network.

Things also started to look up for Abdus-Salaam when she began considering renovations to her first townhouse on West 131st Street. She hired a contractor, Hector Nova, and soon started dating him. They married and bought a country home in upstate Warwick.

By 2003, Abdus-Salaam wanted out of the union and initiated divorce proceedings against Nova, leading to a protracted legal battle that lasted two years, according to public records obtained by The Post. Nova did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

Despite the divorce, Abdus-Salaam’s career kept rising. In 2009, Gov. David Paterson named her as a justice to the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, First Judicial Department.

But it was on the Court of Appeals where Abdus-Salaam recently made one of the most important decisions.

Last August, in a seminal ruling, she expanded the definition of what it means to be a parent in New York state, overturning a 1991 ruling that nonbiological parents in a same-sex union had no standing to seek custody.

She wrote, “where a partner shows by clear and convincing evidence that the parties agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together, the non-biological, non-adoptive partner has standing to seek visitation and custody.”

In the months that she toiled over the ruling, Abdus-Salaam took time out last June to marry the Rev. Gregory Jacobs at the Greater Newark Conservancy.

It was Jacobs who first alerted the police from his home in Newark after Abdus-Salaam did not show up for work on April 12.

The newlyweds spent their weeks apart, with Jacobs living at his home in Newark, where he works at the city’s Episcopal Diocese. They spent alternate weekends at each others’ homes, Madison said. Now, Jacobs and all of Abdus-Salaam’s friends are on lockdown. Grief-stricken, they are refusing comment until there is more information about the cause of death, although no one can quite bring themselves to accept that Abdus-Salaam may have committed suicide.

As Jacobs noted in a public statement last week, “Those of use who loved Sheila and knew her well do not believe that these unfounded conclusions have any basis in reality.”


NEW YORK — Sheila Abdus-Salaam, an associate judge on New York state’s highest court and the first African-American and muslim woman to serve on that bench, was found dead Wednesday in the Hudson River, authorities said.

Officers with the New York Police Department’s Harbor Unit responded about 1:45 p.m. to a report of a person floating by the shore near West 132nd Street in Upper Manhattan. Abdus-Salaam, 65, was taken to a pier on the Hudson River and was pronounced dead by paramedics shortly after 2 p.m.

The police were investigating how she ended up in the river, and it was not clear how long Abdus-Salaam, who lived nearby in Harlem, had been missing. There were no signs of trauma on her body, the police said. She was fully clothed.

Medical examiners remove Abdus-Salaam’s body.



A law enforcement official said investigators had found no signs of criminality. Her husband identified her body.

Since 2013, 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 1st 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 city’s Law Department.

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

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement Wednesday that 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, 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 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.

On the court, Abdus-Salaam was among the most reliable and steadfast liberal voices, regularly siding with vulnerable parties — the poor, impoverished immigrants and people with mental illnesses, for instance — 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.

Among her colleagues, she was admired for her thoughtfulness, her candor and her finely crafted and restrained writing style. She was not one to use her decisions as a soapbox to make high-sounding political points or to wax poetic, even when her rulings were precedent-setting.

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.”

Last summer, Abdus-Salaam wrote an important decision, Matter of Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C., that expanded the definition of what it means to be a parent, overturning a previous ruling. For 25 years, the court had held that the nonbiological parent in a same-sex couple had no standing to seek custody or visitation rights after a breakup.

But Abdus-Salaam wrote that the previous ruling had become “unworkable when applied to increasingly varied familial relationships.” In a tightly reasoned decision, she determined that nonbiological parents did have standing to seek custody if they showed “by clear and convincing evidence that all parties agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together.”

The Court of Appeals last heard oral arguments at the end of March and issued opinions on April 4. It is scheduled to be back in session on April 25.

Abdus-Salaam grew up in Washington, one of seven children in a poor family, and earned her law degree at Columbia University in 1977. After law school, she became a public defender in Brooklyn, representing people who could not afford lawyers, and then served as an assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York state attorney general’s office. 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.

Seymour W. James Jr., the attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society, the nation’s largest provider of free legal services, said he had first met Abdus-Salaam in the early 1980s, when she worked at the Civil Rights Bureau. James said her upbringing and years spent representing the poor and disenfranchised had shaped her perspective on the bench. “She was a strong believer in equal rights and equal access to justice,” he said in an interview.

In an interview in 2014 about black history, Abdus-Salaam said that 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 H. Holder Jr., the former U.S. attorney general, was classmates with Abdus-Salaam at Columbia Law School and sang her praises at her swearing-in ceremony in 2013, according to The Associated Press.

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.

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