Stunned neighbors, friends and political heavyweights including Gov. Cuomo are remembering Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam as a pioneering "force for good" as they cope with the abject shock of her sudden death.
Abdus-Salaam, the first black woman appointed to New York state's highest court and the first Muslim woman to serve as a U.S. judge, was found dead in the Hudson River off Manhattan Wednesday afternoon, a day after she was reported missing, authorities said.
Her body showed no obvious signs of trauma and police said there was no indication of criminality. The medical examiner's office is investigating.
The 65-year-old Manhattan resident was elected to the Supreme Court of the State of New York in 1993, where she remained until 2009. She was serving on the New York State Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York State, before her death. She was appointed to the position by Cuomo in 2013.
In a statement Wednesday, Cuomo called Abdus-Salaam a "pioneer" and a "force for good whose legacy will be felt for years to come."
Others recalled Abdus-Salaam as an inspiration to all who had the good fortune to know her. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore recalled her "personal warmth, uncompromising sense of fairness and bright legal mind."
Former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said he knew Abdus-Salaam for many years.
"The court has suffered a terrible blow," he said.
A Washington, D.C., native, Abdus-Salaam graduated from Barnard College with a degree in economics in 1974 and went on to receive her law degree from Columbia University in 1977 as a Charles Evans Hughes Fellow.
The president of the New York State Bar Association, Claire Gutekunst, said Abdus-Salaam grew up poor in a family of seven children and "rose to become one of the seven judges in New York's highest court, where her intellect, judicial temperament and wisdom earned her wide respect."
In Harlem on Wednesday, friends and colleagues remembered her as a kind, gentle and loving fixture of her community.
Neighbor Michele Harris said she was shocked when she heard of her death.
"I feel like I want to cry," Harris said. "It's a loss."
On her block of West 131st Street, Abdus-Salaam was part of a nonprofit called Project Brownstone, which helps under-served youth.
"She was amazing because she really inspired the kids," Project Brownstone Founder Earl Davis said. "She was able to show them something that was outside of their realm."
To those who knew her on a personal level outside the courthouse, it's that spirit they will miss the most.
"It's shocking," Davis said. "I just don't understand what happened."