During her short time as a Court of Appeals judge, Abdus-Salaam left an indelible mark, authoring two landmark decisions in just the last year.
In the Matter of Brooke S.B. v Elizabeth A.C.C., Abdus-Salaam wrote the decision that overturned an over two-decade old ruling that said nonbiological parents in a same-sex couple had no standing to seek custody of a child after the couple broke up.
In her opinion, Abdus-Salaam said she determined that nonbiological parents could seek custody if they showed “by clear and convincing evidence that all parties agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together.”
Susan Sommer, lawyer for the plaintiff in that case, told BuzzFeed News that since the Brooke decision she has seen “a ripple effect” across the state.
“Just a few days ago, I got a thank-you email from somebody I don’t know at all who has custody,” Sommer said. “It has opened doors that were slammed for decades in New York.”
“She embodied so many important features for New York,” Sommer said. “A woman, an African American, a jurist who broke critical new ground for LGBT families. She represented much that we should aspire to.”
In another recent Court of Appeals ruling, People v. Bridgeforth, Abdus-Salaam authored the decision that said that an attorney could not disqualify a potential juror in a case based on skin tone, not just race.
“Defendant argues that, contrary to the people’s position, dark skin color is a cognizable class and, indeed, must be one unless the established protections of Batson are to be eviscerated by allowing challenges based on skin color to serve as a proxy for those based on race,” Abdus-Salaam wrote. “We agree with defendant.”
Despite the demands of a high-profile job, other colleagues of Abdus-Salaam remember her as someone who was generous with her time, particularly with law students.
Albany Law School Professor Vincent Bonventre, who brings his class to the Court of Appeals on Wednesdays to watch arguments, said Judge Abdus-Salaam would not hesitate to come out after the proceedings and chat with the students.
“It wasn’t ‘you’re lucky to be speaking with me’ with her — it was exactly the opposite,” Bonventre said. “She was thrilled. She would be very, very candid about how tough the cases were, open about the fact that voting in the cases was close and that she struggled with how to vote.”
Through all the triumphs of her career, Abdus-Salaam dealt with her share of tragedy in her personal life. In 2014, her brother committed suicide, the Times reported. And last year she lost her mother.
As reports emerged on her death, her colleagues and friends remained in disbelief about the possibility that Abdus-Salaam might have taken her own life.
Kaylin Whittingham, president of the New York Association of Black Women Attorneys, an organization that Abdus-Salaam was active with, said she saw the judge several times over the last few weeks.
“I did not see signs she was dealing with anything,” Whittingham said. “You can never quite tell. Whatever it is, it was just really tragic and heartbreaking.”
Whittingham remembers when Abdus-Salaam’s brother died in 2014. Around the time of his death, the ABWA was set to honor Abdus-Salaam as a trailblazer for African-American women. But because of her brother’s death, she could not attend the event, so Whittingham accepted it on Abdus-Salaam’s behalf.
“When I saw her, I gave her the award and told her, ‘This girl is on fire,’” making a reference to the Alicia Keys song, Whittingham recalls.
“All the time, that’s what I tell her: ‘This girl is on fire!’”