Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam broke boundaries by becoming the first African-American woman on New York State’s highest court.
Tributes to the “trailblazing” woman poured in on Thursday, after local media reported that she had been found dead the night before in the Hudson River. Investigators are treating her death as a suicide.
Lambda Legal, a national LGBTQ advocacy organization, called Abdus-Salaam’s death “tragic loss for all of New York.” Susan Sommer, the group’s associate legal director, pointed to the judge’s decision on a case last summer that expanded New York’s definition of “parent.” It cleared the way for queer parents with no biological ties to their children to “to seek parenting rights to their children on equal footing with biological parents.”
The decision centered around two combined cases. One of them involved a couple from Chautauqua County, identified in court as Brooke S.B. and Elizabeth A. C.C. The couple agreed to have a child through artificial insemination in 2008. Although Elizabeth was the one who became pregnant with their son. Brooke did not formally adopt her son, but the child took on her last name.
The relationship ended in 2010, one year before same-sex marriage was legalized in New York. Three years later, Elizabeth tried to prevent Brooke from contacting the child. Brooke sued for custody and visitation privileges. A lower court denied that request because a previous 1991 decision in New York didn’t define “non-adoptive, non-biological” caretakers as parents, according to the New York Times reported.
In a similar case that was considered along with Brooke’s, Matter of Estrellita A. v. Jennifer L.D., the biological mom attempted to force her ex-partner to pay child support and at the same time, block the ex-partner’s visitation rights.
The New York State Court of Appeals decided in August that non-biological, non-adoptive parents could ask for custody and visitation rights, given that they showed that the couple had agreed to conceive and raise the child together.
Giving voice to the majority decision in the case, Abdus-Salaam wrote last year that the definition of “parent” established by the previous decision “has become unworkable when applied to increasingly varied familial relationships.”
Sommer, who was Brooke’s lawyer, told The Huffington Post that while Lambda Legal has not seen many cases over Abdus-Salaam’s career addressing LGBTQ issues, the judge “led the way” when it came to reversing a “devastating precedent tearing children from their parents. “
Sommer said that Abdus-Salaam’s 2016 opinion “finally recognized the full legitimacy of LGBT families and the trauma inflicted on their children, who too long had been allowed to fall through the cracks in New York law.”
“She changed the lives of many children, who now are reunited with their loving parents. This was huge. She has earned the gratitude of Lambda Legal and of many New Yorkers,” Sommer told HuffPost in an email.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights, which filed an amicus brief for that case, said that Abdus-Salaam had “authored one of the most important LGBTQ rights decisions in New York’s history.”
“We need more judges who care about the real-world impact of their decisions and who strive to ensure that the law treats all people fairly and equally,” NCLR Legal Director Shannon Price Minter told The Huffington Post. “Judge Abdus-Salaam was a true champion for all people, and her leadership on the New York Court of Appeals will be sorely missed.”
CORRECTION: This article previously stated that Abdus-Salaam was Muslim. Her first husband was Muslim and she kept his surname after they divorced, but she herself had not converted, according to a court spokesman who spoke to The Huffington Post.