As Tsering Cornell took her oath in July to become a Clark County Superior Court judge — the county’s first Asian American judge — behind her the gallery was full of friends, family and colleagues. But the courtroom was also packed with other Tibetan Americans there to celebrate the success of one of their own.
Cornell said she’s been told she is the first Tibetan American judge in the United States.
Her parents each fled Tibet with their families as children in 1959. They first went to Nepal and India, she said. Her grandparents thought they’d stay temporarily and eventually return to their homes in Tibet. But it was never safe for them to return, Cornell said, so her parents found themselves immigrating to the U.S.
“This is our home. I think both my parents have spent more time in the United States than anywhere else. They’re very American,” Cornell said. “Having a connection to their old country and making sure their kids had some idea of the culture that we’ve never seen in a geographic sense, back in Tibet, was important to them. And now, as a parent, I totally get why, and growing up by it, I’ve benefited immensely from that connection.”
Cornell was born in Astoria, Ore., where her father worked at the mill. Her family moved to Washougal in 1985, then to Vancouver in 1988. Even in Astoria, she said the few Tibetan families there stayed in close touch and always helped each other when needed.
She noted the importance of feeling a sense of community and the role they’ve played in each other’s lives.
“Being a small ethnic group within a smaller ethnic group — Asian Americans generally are smaller in numbers out here anyway — and then to be kind of a micro group within that, at times can feel lonely,” she said. “But I’ve been lucky to not experience that too much with the community we have here. Everyone is very connected. Everybody’s there for each other.”
Importance of community
Cornell recalled that as a child, there wasn’t a central gathering place locally for the Tibetan community. Instead, she said families would rotate opening up their houses for everyone to share meals and wisdom.
She’s built on the network of knowledge shared in the community, from her parents, cousins, neighbors, friends and anyone else who participated in gatherings.
“They passed everything down,” Cornell said. “The friends and family who would have gone through (student loan) applications or found out you could get an application fee waiver if you applied to this school, college or whatnot, they shared all of that with the younger kids, and in turn, we did the same, which was a huge benefit. Because as a first generation, it’s hard to know where to even begin to look.”
But for all the know-how shared by those around her, Cornell found herself in uncharted territory when pursuing a law career.
“I mentioned my cousins who are doctors. We have quite a few talented Tibetan medical professionals. We even have folks who have excelled in real estate — just about any profession you can think of,” she said. “But for some reason, the law is still one of those areas we’re still working to bring more Tibetan Americans into that fold.”
However, Cornell may already be on her way to changing that.
She has served as a mentor through organizations, such as the South Asian Bar Association, which also awards scholarships. One of the recipients was a young Tibetan woman who is pursuing a law degree at Seattle University.
Cornell said she knows of one other attorney in the state who is Tibetan, and she’s hoping the scholarship recipient will go on to become the third.
Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez administered Cornell’s oath at her investiture. She said she was moved by his participation, especially after the impact one of his lectures left on her.
Gonzalez was the keynote speaker at last year’s National Judicial College, which Cornell attended as an aspiring judge. She recalled his speech was titled, “You don’t look like a judge.” It noted the importance of judicial diversity, not just for the sake of diversity, she said, but to increase trust in those handing down potentially life-altering decisions.
Cornell’s appointment also tipped the Superior Court bench’s majority toward women judges.
The first cup of coffee she drank in her new judicial chambers was out of a mug gifted to her by Judge Suzan Clark. Clark was, for many years, the only woman on the Superior Court bench.
Cornell said Clark buys mugs created by a local artist decorated with symbols invoking the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for each new woman judge.
“When she gifted me that at my investiture, she said, ‘I want you to know, I didn’t just buy one. I bought several more because I think more women are coming,’ ” Cornell said.
Cornell also often thinks about Judge Camara Banfield, whose office is nearby in the Family Law Annex, she said.
Banfield was the first woman of color appointed to the Superior Court bench in 2020. Cornell said Banfield called her to encourage her not to give up on her judicial goals after she’d been passed up for appointments five times before.
“The rejection fatigue, it can take a toll, and you start to feel like, ‘I need to take a hint,’” Cornell said. “But to hear from her, saying, ‘No, that’s just what it takes. It’s a different path. And keep going if you really want this,’ that was a huge encouragement.”
Cornell said she was “overwhelmed with gratitude” by Judge Jennifer Snider presiding over the ceremony as the bench’s assistant presiding judge, along with comments from Clark and Banfield praising her appointment.
“Those two have long been mentors and folks I look up to and clearly paved the way for me,” Cornell said. “I really do mean it when I say I’m standing on all their shoulders, because it was not that long ago that Judge Clark was the lone woman on this bench and that was the status quo.”
Traits for the job
Cornell is currently presiding over family law cases. Besides her experience as an attorney representing state agencies, such as the Department of Children, Youth and Families, she said her Tibetan temperament lends itself to those types of cases.
Because many litigants represent themselves, she noted the patience required to thoroughly explain the judicial process to those unfamiliar with it.
“Part of being Tibetan is our high esteem for the Dalai Lama and what he stands for and this idea that compassion should be top of mind. And I think judicial officers absolutely need to be having that mindset, because what we do reverberates not just with that individual but their family and their neighborhood and their community. And if we don’t start from a place of compassion, I think we’re on the wrong foot,” she said.
The weekend after her investiture, the local Tibetan community gathered in honor of the Dalai Lama’s birthday, as it does every year. At the celebration, Cornell said she was invited to speak, and she was presented with a painting that now hangs over her computer in her chambers.
“I felt like I finally got a chance to just say thank you to the community that’s long been supporting me and obviously my entire family,” she said.
Although her judicial appointment was celebrated throughout the Tibetan community for the progress it represents, Cornell said her 5-year-old daughter, Tenzin, thinks it’s no big deal that her mom’s a judge — which, Cornell said, is ultimately the point.
“I’m very proud of my daughter but also really excited that it’s not an oddity that she sees women, and women that look like her, in different fields,” Cornell said.