The tragic loss of Sheila Abdus-Salaam

 Columnist Olivia Hunt

Columnist Olivia Hunt

During the turbulent political climate we are currently in, it’s absolutely crucial now more than ever to have equal and fair representation within our judicial system.

Unfortunately, the current number of active female judges is a mere 36 percent, according to the National Women’s Law Center. For women of color, the numbers are even smaller. Across the country, only 10 percent serve as active federal judges. Only 12 women of color are on the U.S. Court of Appeals, and one of them was just found floating in the Hudson River.

Finding a dead body floating in a river is already enough to justify a public outcry, but the body of Sheila Abdus-Salaam should particularly spark concern. Abdus-Salaam was the country’s first female Muslim judge as well as the first African-American woman to serve on New York’s Court of Appeals.

Educated women of color in positions of power are regrettably a rare breed. The late judge earned her higher education at Barnard College and went on to complete her studies at Columbia Law School in 1977. In her early years, she worked at the Civil Rights Bureau and was deeply shaped by her poor upbringing, according to Seymour W. James Jr., the attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society.

Despite only serving on the Court of Appeals for four years, she was called “a pioneer” and a “trailblazing jurist with a force for good,” by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who appointed Abdus-Salaam to her position back in 2013. According to the New York Times, her voice was one who stood up for vulnerable citizens such as the poor, immigrants and people suffering from mental illness.

Back when she was first appointed to her position, Abdus-Salaam won an anti-discrimination case for over 30 female New York City bus drivers who had been wrongfully denied promotions. Last summer, the judge helped overturn a 25-year-old law that stated the nonbiological parent in a same-sex couple had no standing to seek custody or visitation rights after a separation.

It’s important to note the significance of her religion as well as her race when considering this tragedy. Following her recent death, speculations have been made that suggest her death was a suicide due to no obvious signs of injury on the body. Postings on social media have been quick to question the assumption of suicide due to a general distrust of police and the trend of brushing black death’s under the table and ruling them suicides. Earlier this year, the mysterious death of Sandra Bland in jail was broadcast as a suicide which led to much skepticism.

Currently, members of Congress are more than 80 percent male, about 80 percent white and about 60 years old on average. The entirety of the U.S. law system is in dire need of gender, racial and religious diversity in order to avoid corruption and provide a genuinely safe country for all of its inhabitants.

The loss of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam is a devastating setback for the judicial system. The quite obvious lack of diversity that we are being represented by today is an outright disservice to the majority of people living in this country that don’t fall under the aforementioned statistic.