By Jane Rosales, Impact Center Fellow & NYLS ’17
Over a year ago, Honorable Sheila Abdus-Salaam spoke at the Impact Center for Public Interest Law’s annual symposium on civil rights and access to justice. On the panel titled “Access to Justice for Vulnerable Populations” moderated by Impact Center Policy Director Andrew Scherer, Judge Abdus-Salaam discussed that as a judge, one must be sensitive to those issues of vulnerable populations. Judge Abdus-Salaam said that “there’s no greater priority for the judiciary than making sure everyone has equal access.”
Judge Abdus-Salaam had always been a champion for vulnerable populations. After graduating from Columbia Law School, Judge Abdus-Salaam began her career as a public interest attorney at East Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation. Three years later she joined the New York State Department of Law as an assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights and Real Estate Financing bureaus, where she remained until 1988. During that year, she became general counsel for the NYC Office of Labor Services, serving until 1991, the year of her election to the NYC Civil Court bench and the beginning of her distinguished judicial career.
Impact Center Policy Director Andrew Scherer says “I first met Sheila Abdus-Salaam close to 40 years ago when we were both young legal services lawyers. We bonded on the picket line during the legal services strike of 1979-80. Judge Abdus-Salaam was a remarkable person. When I met her she was a sharp-witted, talented lawyer who was warm and friendly to colleagues and utterly devoted to her clients and their communities. I watched, over the decades, as her extraordinary skills and charismatic yet low-key personality led to success in a range of public service jobs, culminating in her appointment to the Court of Appeals where she made her mark as a forceful, principled and consistent voice for civil and human rights. Judge Abdus-Salaam’s death is painful and shocking for all of us who knew her, and a profound loss for the legal profession, the judiciary and the people of New York.”
In April of 2013, Governor Andrew Cuomo nominated Judge Abdus-Salaam to the New York State Court of Appeals. Governor Cuomo said in a statement: ” … Rising from working class roots to serve for decades on the bench of the New York State Supreme Court, Justice Abdus-Salaam has a deep understanding of the everyday issues facing New Yorkers, as well as the complex legal issues that come before the state’s highest court.” (Governor Cuomo Announces Nomination for Court of Appeals, Press Release, April 5, 2013, available at: http://www.governor.ny.gov.)
One major decision Judge Abdus-Salaam authored for the Court of Appeals was in Matter of Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C. that expanded the definition of parents to include same-sex partners and overruled the case, Matter of Alison D, which narrowly defined “parents.” Judge Abdus-Salaam wrote that same-sex partners of biological parents could assert visitation rights of children. Of the decision and Judge Abdus-Salaam’s death, Lambda Legal stated “Judge Abdus-Salaam saw clearly how damaging it was to keep LGBT parents from their children. We owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude. She touched the lives of many New Yorkers; her legacy will live on.”