Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam died in April under tragic circumstances. Since 2013, she sat on the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court.
I never appeared before Judge Abdus- Salaam, but I knew her because she had a firm commitment to giving back to others. I first met Judge Abdus-Salaam, while I was a student at Columbia Law School. A graduate of Columbia Law School, Judge Abdus-Salaam often came back to the school to attend events. Over the last 17 years I have met her at various Law School Alumni, Bar events and other social gatherings. She always was very gracious. Even though she was a trail blazer, she was approachable and kind.
Judge Abdus-Salaam has made a deep and long lasting impact on Family Law. In 2016, she wrote a groundbreaking decision in the case titled Matter of Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C.
In this case the parties, Brooke and Elizabeth met in 2006. They moved in together and became engaged. They planned to get married as soon as New York permitted same sex marriage. Meanwhile, they agreed to start a family and, they agreed that Elizabeth would carry the child. Elizabeth became pregnant in 2008 using an anonymous donor. When their child was born, Brooke was present in the delivery room. Brooke was involved in every aspect of the child’s life.
Brooke and Elizabeth broke up in 2010 and Brooke continue to have parenting time with the child several nights a week and on holidays. But in 2013 Elizabeth decided that she did not want Brooke involved in the child’s life anymore and stopped all contact between Brooke and the child. Brooke filed for custody and visitation. The lower court ruled that since Brooke was not married to Elizabeth and was not an adoptive or biological parent of the child, she had no standing to seek custody or visitation. Standing is the right to bring a case in court.
However, on Appeal in a decision written by Judge Abdus-Salaam, the court expanded the definition of “parenthood.” This expanded definition gave Brooke standing. The court ruled that non-married, ex-partners of biological parents could seek custody or visitation rights of children they once agreed to conceive and raise as co-partners with their exes.
I don’t know if Judge Abdus-Salaam ever knew how many lives she touched in a positive way. But she has left a legacy that will be celebrated for many years. Rest in Peace.