Outside, the first real cold snap of fall had brought a chill to the air, but inside the grand ballroom of the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan there was a tremendous feeling of warmth as more than 250 alumni and friends came together on November 4 to honor this year’s recipients of the Wien Prize for Social Responsibility—The Hon. Sheila A. Abdus-Salaam ’77, associate judge of the New York Court of Appeals, and The Hon. Rolando T. Acosta ’82, associate justice of the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department. The honorees were evident favorites not only of the audience, but also, as former colleagues and longtime friends, of each other.
The Hon. Sheila A. Abdus-Salaam ’77, associate judge of the New York Court of Appeals, and The Hon. Rolando T. Acosta ’82, associate justice of the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department.
In kicking off the 31st annual award luncheon, David M. Schizer, Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law and Harvey R. Miller Professor of Law and Economics, said, “We are proud to honor the legacy of Lawrence Wien, Class of ’27, and to celebrate Columbia Law School’s commitment to public service, which is easy to do when we honor two such distinguished graduates.”
Established in 1982, the Wien Prize is one of the most prestigious honors conferred by Columbia Law School. It is awarded each year to two individuals who put their resources and legal skills to work for the public good, serving as positive role models for both the profession and Law School students. Speaking after Dean Schizer on behalf of the Wien family, Douglas Morse, grandson of Lawrence Wien, said of the recipients, “They are both exceptional examples of meaningful public service and without a doubt have improved the communities in which they serve and our country as a whole.”
Sheila Abdus-Salaam grew up in Washington, D.C., one of seven siblings in a family that struggled to make ends meet. Inspired by a visit to her high school by lawyer and civil rights activist Frankie Muse Freeman, she decided at a young age to pursue a career in law as a means of helping others. “I came to Columbia Law School in 1974 to become a lawyer for the poor and under-represented, just like my family and the families I grew up with in Southeast Washington, D.C.,” Abdus-Salaam said during her remarks. But her path was not a common one. “Only a small percentage of my fellow students expected to embark on careers in public interest law,” she added, “and there was no Center for Public Interest Law, or Social Justice Initiatives. Those would come into existence long after I graduated. But there were clinics, and I was lucky enough to get into the Morningside Heights Legal Services Clinic, where I spent my third year representing housing-project tenants being evicted for non-desirability.”
Abdus-Salaam and David M. Schizer, Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law and the Harvey R. Miller Professor of Law and Economics
Abdus-Salaam’s first job after law school was as a staff attorney for Brooklyn Legal Services. She later worked in the New York State Department of Law as an assistant attorney general and served as general counsel for the New York City Office of Labor Services. She entered the judicial system in 1991, when she was elected to the New York Civil Court, and rose through the ranks. In April 2013 Abdus-Salaam was nominated to fill a vacancy on the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, where she is the first African American woman to hold this position. “I’m very fortunate to have enjoyed the career I have had, both on and off the bench, and to have exceeded my wildest dreams by capping my career in New York State’s highest court,” said Abdus-Salaam. Among her Court of Appeals colleagues present at the luncheon were Jenny Rivera ’93 LL.M, Robert Smith ’68, and Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.
Dean Schizer referred to Abdus-Salaam’s nomination to the Court of Appeals as “one of those inspiring moments when a truly deserving person is acknowledged for her talent, decency, and devotion to the public good,” adding that those same qualities make her the “ideal recipient” of the Wien Prize. He also noted of Abdus-Salaam, who served as vice chair of the Board of Visitors during his first nine years as dean, that he has benefitted personally on many occasions from her “wise counsel and her calm and dispassionate approach to difficult issues involving the Law School.”
In his introduction of Rolando T. Acosta, Dean Schizer delighted in revealing that not only was Acosta a distinguished judge, a dedicated trustee of Columbia University, and a close adviser of the dean, but that the Dominican-born honoree was also a star baseball player at Columbia University in the late 1970s. “Rolando was a starting pitcher for the Lions,” Dean Schizer told attendees. “He won basically every athletic prize given to a pitcher by the Ivy League and the Intercollegiate Baseball Association, and in 1979 was named one of the best student athletes in the country by the NCAA.”
Acosta and his daughter, Zila Reyes Acosta ’15
After his comments, Dean Schizer welcomed to the stage a surprise guest speaker: Acosta’s daughter, Zila Reyes Acosta ’15. During a rush of remarks sparked with admiration and emotion, she talked about her father’s deep-rooted desire to serve others. “This desire is grounded in a lifelong belief in justice for all and the belief that the actions of one person can have an effect on many,” she said. Zila explained how her father, like Abdus-Salaam, experienced a career-defining moment when a judge visited his Bronx high school. At that moment, “A dream was born,” Zila said, “a dream to reach beyond his circumstances and find a way to help his family and those like them. He could have pursued a career in baseball, as you heard. He could have pursued a career in big law. But instead he chose to work for the organization that kept his super from evicting his family in the South Bronx, The Legal Aid Society.”
Acosta went on to serve in New York City Mayor David Dinkins’ administration as the Human Rights Commission’s deputy commissioner for law enforcement and, later, as commissioner of human rights. He was elected to the New York State Supreme Court in New York County in 2002 and was appointed to the court’s Appellate Division, First Department, in 2008.
During his remarks, Acosta spoke of the “incredible honor” the Wien Prize for Social Responsibility represents for his family. “It honors my parents, who understood and taught their six children that even in poverty, and its resulting despair, a life well lived necessarily included service to others,” he said. “It also honors my parents’ sacrifice and vision of a better future for their children in a place where the rule of law is not just an abstract concept swayed by the caprice of those in power, but a living monument that structures our daily life.”
Addressing an audience that included his wife of 33 years, Vasthi, and 15 of his 16 fellow First Department judges, including Presiding Justice Luis Gonzalez ’75, Richard Andrias ’70, Angela Mazzarelli ’71, and Karla Moskowitz ’66, he added: “My gratitude to Columbia goes beyond the opportunity that it gave me to be the first in my family to get a college degree. Columbia gave me a broader intellectual understanding of my parents’ lesson of contribution and allowed me to internalize that as a social person I would find fulfillment by engaging in activities larger than myself.”
Dean Schizer, the honorees, and members of the Wien family.
Both Abdus-Salaam and Acosta serve on numerous nonprofit and civic boards and they both have received many honors and awards during their careers. Among them, Abdus-Salaam is the recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award presented by the Columbia Law School Black Law Students Association and the Human Rights Award presented by the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. Acosta received the University’s Medal for Excellence at Commencement in 2000 and, this past month, he received the LaLSA Alumni Award for Distinguished Accomplishments and Advocacy in Service to Latino/a Americans.
Also present at the award luncheon were this year’s two Wien Fellows—Alexander Grimm’14 and Meerim Kachkynbaeva ’14—and 7 of the 15 current Wien Scholars. Many former honorees were also in attendance.
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