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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.

The Rev. Canon Gregory A. Jacobs Statement

April 19, 2017

It has been a week since our beloved Sheila’s body was discovered in the Hudson River. Since that day, the New York Police Department has conducted a vigorous investigation, but has been unable to determine a conclusive cause of death. A recent statement by the NYPD now calls the circumstances involving the investigation “suspicious.” We are truly thankful for their efforts and pray that the facts will ultimately be made known.

Despite the ongoing investigation, some media outlets and others have conjectured that Sheila was the victim of a “probable suicide.” These reports have frequently included unsubstantiated comments concerning my wife’s possible mental and emotional state of mind at the time of her death. Those of us who loved Sheila and knew her well do not believe that these unfounded conclusions have any basis in reality. And in the absence of any conclusive evidence, we believe such speculations to be unwarranted and irresponsible.

We therefore call upon the media and responsible public officials to refrain from any baseless commentary and conjecture concerning the circumstances surrounding the death of our beloved Sheila.

Sheila loved Harlem and its people and lived there for nearly all of her adult life. I now join with the NYPD in asking anyone in the neighborhood to step forward with any information that might help us determine what may have happened during those hours before her death.

Finally, I wish to thank each and every one of you—family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and admirers—for your continued prayers, personal stories, and words of encouragement and support.

–The Rev. Canon Gregory A. Jacobs, husband of the Honorable Sheila Abdus-Salaam

Turner Family Statement

April 19, 2017

We, the family of Sheila Abdus-Salaam, are devastated at the loss of our sister, aunt, and cousin.  She was an extraordinary woman. We loved her dearly, and were extremely proud of her. Sheila’s unwavering support to our family and her friends was exemplary. We will forever reflect on her courage, determination and strength that was capstoned by her modest, humble and beautiful spirit. Her legacy of high standards, morals and values will extend far beyond the courtroom to the many lives she touched and inspired in our family and around the world!

As we await the outcome of the investigation into the circumstances associated with her death, we want to correct some inaccuracies that have been reported in the media. Sheila’s mother, the matriarch of our family who died at age 92 in 2012, did not take her own life. Shelia’s younger brother, who died in 2014, lost his battle with terminal lung cancer. Additionally, Sheila has not been a practicing Muslim for the past 20 years. She continued to use her first husband’s surname professionally. We will forever remember witnessing her happiness as she united in marriage to an Episcopal priest last year.

We would like to thank everyone who has reached out to us with acts of kindness and expression of sympathy during this difficult time. At this time, we are requesting privacy as we grieve the loss of our beloved Sheila. Media may contact Rebecca Wilson (rebecca@canticlecommunications.com) or 330-524-2067.

–the Turner family

Jacobs Family Statement

April 13, 2017

Dearest Friends:

We are deeply grieved at the untimely passing of Sheila Abdus-Salaam, whom her family mourns as a beloved wife and devoted stepmother. She gave tirelessly and selflessly as a public servant, mentor, distinguished jurist, and community leader throughout her 40-year legal career. She was greatly admired for compassion, wisdom, commitment to excellence, and revered for her support of and sensitivity to the aspirations of young lawyers and law students.

With great humility and gratitude, we acknowledge the many expressions and outpourings of love, faith, and hope from friends, acquaintances, and colleagues. Bishop Mark Beckwith of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark has been a particular solace to us at this difficult time. We find comfort in discovering that our Sheila was so deeply loved and respected by so many.

While moved that so many of you wish to be in direct contact with us during this difficult time, we respectfully request that the privacy of our family be respected and that all further inquiries be directed to the New York Court of Appeals Public Information Office (518-455-7711) or to Canticle Communications (rebecca@canticlecommunications.com or 330-524-2067).

Charlotte Jacobs
Stephanie Jacobs Snyder
The Rev. Canon Greg Jacobs