In Memoriam: Sheila Abdus-Salaam, 1952-2017

The Honorable Sheila Abdus-Salaam, an associate judge on the New York Court of Appeals and a resident of Harlem, New York, died on April 12, 2017, at age 65.

During her 40-year legal career, Sheila gave tirelessly and compassionately as a public servant, mentor, distinguished jurist, and community leader. The first black woman appointed to New York’s highest court, Sheila was known for her support of young lawyers and law students, encouragement of the aspirations of practicing lawyers and judges, and her commitment to excellence.

A native of Washington D.C., Sheila was one of seven children born to Willena Turner and Alfred Brown. She was educated in the District of Columbia Public Schools and attended Eastern Senior High School, graduating in June 1970 as salutatorian of her class. She received a scholarship to attend Barnard College, graduating in 1974. In 1977, she earned her Juris Doctorate from Columbia Law School where she was a Charles Evans Hughes Fellow.

Following law school, Sheila started her legal career as a public defender at Brooklyn Legal Services and then worked as assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights and Real Estate Financing Bureaus of the New York State Attorney General’s office from 1980 to 1988. She  subsequently became general counsel of the New York City Division of Labor Services, serving there until 1991.

Sheila was first elected a judge of the Civil Court of the City of New York, beginning in December 1991, and then, in 1993 and 2007, was elected a justice of the Supreme Court, First Department of the State of New York. In March 2009, she was appointed to the Supreme Court’s appellate division by Governor David A. Paterson, and in 2013, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo appointed her to the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court.

Among her many memorable legal opinions was her 2016 Court of Appeals decision in Matter of Brooke S.B. vs. Elizabeth A.C., which expanded the legal definition of what it means to be a parent, effectively overturning a previous ruling in which the court had held that the non-biological parent in a same-sex couple relationship had no standing to seek custody or visitation rights following a breakup. She was known and respected as a jurist who with thoughtfulness, compassion and sensitivity protected the rights of the most vulnerable in our society.

She gave her time generously to the legal community, and formerly served as president of the New York City Chapter of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, Director of the Respect for Law Alliance, and on the executive committee of the National Lawyers Guild, New York City Chapter.

In and out of the courtroom, Sheila was a champion for justice. She served on the boards of Contemporary Guidance Services and Project Brownstone Inc. and was chair emerita of the board of Harlem Legal Services and the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation.  She was devoted to Barnard College and Columbia Law School, and served as vice president of the Columbia Law School Board of Visitors.

Sheila was an avid swimmer and athletically inclined, playing basketball, softball and running track in her earlier years. She also loved to dance and, as former Attorney General Eric Holder noted at her Court of Appeals swearing-in, “She loved to boogie.”  Most enduring was her warm engaging spirit coupled with a non-discriminating love for persons from every walk of life.

Sheila is survived by her husband, the Rev. Canon Gregory A. Jacobs, her brother, Benjamin Turner (Hattie), her sisters, Sherene Turner, Sheryl McCain (Jethro), and Pamela Turner, her sister-in-law, Deborah Turner, one aunt, Helen Turner, and by many loving nieces, nephews, cousins, friends and colleagues. She was preceded in death by her mother and  father, brothers Melvin Brown and Jerome Turner, aunts and uncles.

A public memorial service will be held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, 1047 Amsterdam Avenue, New York City on Friday, May 26 at noon.

In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be made to the Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam Memorial Fund c/o Episcopal Diocese of Newark, 31 Mulberry Street, Newark, NJ  07102. Contributions will benefit funds in her name being established at Barnard College, Columbia Law School, and other charitable organizations.