THE HONORABLE SHEILA ABDUS-SALAAM: TRAILBLAZER.

Author:Kilmer, Erin E.
Position:New York Court of Appeals
 
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  1. INTRODUCTION

    1. Sheila Abdus-Salaam

      Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam saw her job on the court as a way to "uphold the laws of our state and treat all those who appear before [her] fairly and with respect and dignity," (2) and this sentiment was echoed by those around her. (3) After more than twenty years working her way through the ranks of New York Courts, (4) this respect and dignity paid off when on April 5, 2013, Sheila Abdus-Salaam was nominated by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo to serve on the New York State Court of Appeals, (5) filling a vacancy left by the death of Judge Theodore Jones, Jr. (6) After she was confirmed by the State Senate in a unanimous vote (7) on May 6, 2013, (8) she expressed at her swearing in that she had been graced with "improbable good fortune" that only God and her mother could have foreseen. (9)

      Judge Abdus-Salaam (nee Turner) was born on March 14, 1952, in Washington D.C. (10) She grew up in a working class family with six siblings and parents struggling to make ends meet. (11) She graduated from Barnard College with a Bachelor's degree in economics in 1974, and attended Columbia University School of Law as a Charles Evans Hughes Fellow where she graduated with a law degree in 1977. (12) Following her graduation from law school, she worked as a public defender in Brooklyn, New York, and as an assistant attorney general in the New York State Civil Rights Bureau. (13)

      The importance of her African heritage (14) was not lost on Judge Abdus-Salaam. (15) Her interest in her family's history began as a young girl in school, and her research revealed that her great-grandfather had been a slave in Virginia. (16) In a 2014 interview, she talked about the importance of her heritage and that someone like her, the "great-granddaughter of slaves" being "the first African-American woman on the highest court of the state of New York... tells you and me what it is to know who we are and what we can do." (17)

      Prior to her time on the Court of Appeals, Judge Abdus-Salaam had served on New York courts for more than twenty years. (18) In 1991 she was elected to the New York City Civil Court bench where she served "until 1993, when she was elected to the Supreme Court of the State of New York for New York County." (19) She spent 1994 and 1995 on the Criminal Term, and then sat on the Civil Term until 2009. (20) In March 2009, she was appointed by Governor David A. Patterson to the Appellate Division, First Department. (21)

      When she was nominated to the Court of Appeals, politicians from both major parties praised her. Governor Cuomo discussed her "working-class roots" and her "deep understanding of the everyday issues facing New Yorkers," and the president of the New York State Bar Association, Seymour W. James, Jr., called her the "ideal choice" and talked about her service to the public. (22) While Democratic senators had praised her for "hav[ing] the back of certain segments of society, Senator John DeFrancisco, the Republican from the 50th State Senate District, said he knew she would "have the back of that lady with the scales." (23)

      Unfortunately, Judge Abdus-Salaam's time on the Court was cut short when she died as a result of suicide on April 12, 2017. (24) Her body was found in the Hudson River near West 132nd Street in Manhattan after she had been reported missing when she failed to show up to work that morning. (25) Although many of those around her expressed surprise at her apparent suicide, one of her friends noted that she had been under stress due to her caseload and demand as a speaker. (26) She had also visited a physician earlier in the week and expressed feelings of being "'stressed with the demands of work' and 'not spending enough time with her husband.'" (27) Though her legal career was relatively short, she was celebrated throughout the community. (28)

    2. This Paper

      This paper looks at Judge Abdus-Salaam's written opinions throughout her tenure on the Court. It focuses primarily on her dissenting (29) and concurring opinions, (30) although it does also highlight a few of her notable majority opinions. (31) This paper does not focus on majority opinions because the Judges on the Court of Appeals are randomly assigned the majority decisions they are responsible for writing. (32) Because of this, unlike the United States Supreme Court, in which opinions are assigned by the most senior justice on the majority, Court of Appeals majority opinions are not written by a Judge selected by his or her peers for reasons such as ideology or specialization. (33) Instead, the Judge writing the majority for the Court may be someone who voted with the majority, but did not necessarily have a strong opinion about the case. (34) This contrasts with those judges who write dissents and concurring opinions. In those decisions, each judge who writes one specifically chose to write the opinion.

      Judge Abdus-Salaam was not on the Court for a very long time, and there were quite a few cases during her tenure that she took no part in deciding. (35) Because of this, her record is fairly short. However, in her dissents she made it very clear that she did not agree with the majority and that they were going in the incorrect direction, (36) and in all of her opinions she was careful to lay out her argument clearly so that it could easily be understood by even non-lawyers. (37)

  2. WRITTEN OPINIONS

    1. Dissenting Opinions

      A common theme among Judge Abdus-Salaam's dissenting opinions is respect for the rules of the appellate process. In two separate opinions she dissented from the majority saying that a criminal defendant's conviction could not be overturned because the issue on appeal had not been preserved in the trial court. (38) In People v. Finch (39) the defendant had been convicted of resisting arrest. (40) On appeal, the defendant argued that there was not sufficient evidence that the officer had the probable cause necessary to make an "authorized" arrest. (41) The majority found that the officer did not have probable cause to make an authorized arrest and overturned the conviction. (42) In her dissenting opinion, Judge Abdus-Salaam found that because the defendant did not bring up the issue of whether the arrest was authorized between the arrest and the conviction, that issue was not preserved for appeal. (43) Although the majority discussed the issue of preservation, they found that the defendant had protested that the arrest was not authorized when he was arrested on a...

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