Columbia Law School's second annual Alumni of Color reception honored the late Judge Shelia Abdus-Salaam ’77
On July 13, more than 100 members of the Columbia Law School family gathered for the second annual Alumni of Color reception. The evening at the W New York hotel began with a panel discussion celebrating the work and accomplishments of the late Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam ’77, the first African-American woman to serve on New York’s highest judicial body, the Court of Appeals. Afterward, alumni, faculty, and administrators gathered for a boisterous cocktail reception. “We’re celebrating our presence in the Alumni Association,” said Alumni of Color honorary committee member Edgar G. Rios Jr. ’77. “It’s a coming together of different minority groups—African-Americans, Asians, Latinos.”
In her welcoming remarks before a panel discussion on the work of Abdus-Salaam, Dean Gillian Lester, the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, observed that the judge’s life epitomized the spirit and mission of the Alumni of Color group. “You would be hard pressed to find a lawyer more committed to building opportunities for the next generation of lawyers,” said Lester. “She was a remarkable guiding light for our students.”
Abdus-Salaam’s intellectual gifts, her dedication to the law, and her personal charm were extolled by the evening’s moderator, Clinical Professor of Law Conrad Johnson, and the panelists: former New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams; Rolando T. Acosta ’82, presiding justice, New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, First Department; Jenny Rivera ’93 LL.M., associate judge, New York State Court of Appeals; and Rowan D. Wilson, associate judge, New York State Court of Appeals.
Abrams, who hired Abdus-Salaam in 1980, said he could “see early on that this was a woman of talent and merit and commitment and dedication and real zeal to do good to improve the world.” His assessment proved prescient as she moved from the New York City Civil Court to the State Supreme Court to the State Supreme Court Appellate Division, First Department.
When she told Abrams that she was interested in a position on the Court of Appeals, he found an opportunity at a meeting in Albany to whisper in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s ear: “‘I just want to let you know that there’s a woman Sheila Abdus-Salaam who is a judge and has had a very distinguished life and career, and I think it would be fantastic if you appoint her to the Court of Appeals,” recalled Abrams, who emphasized to the governor that it would be a historic appointment. “He said, ‘I know, I know, I know,’ and the governor did the right thing.”
Rivera said she was thrilled when Abdus-Salaam joined her on the court in 2013. “It was very meaningful to me to have this sort of sisterhood on the bench, if you will,” she said.
Wilson said that what made Abdus-Salaam an exceptional judge was both her intellect and humanity, which she applied to “every case from the most wrenching criminal or family court case to the driest commercial cases,” he said. “When she spoke softly we all listened carefully. Her empathy, sensitivity, and compassion pervaded all she did.”
Johnson asked the panelists what advice Abdus-Salaam might offer to the assembled Alumni of Color if she were present. “I think that she would tell you, particularly the younger members of the profession in the audience, that the best way to highlight the nobility of the profession is to never forget the importance of contributing and impacting the life of others the way she did,” said Acosta.