Clark County swears in its first Asian American judge

A packed courtroom gave Tsering Cornell a standing ovation Friday after she took her oath of office to join Clark County’s Superior Court bench and become the county’s first Asian American judge.

Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Cornell in May to replace Judge Scott Collier, who retired Thursday. She noted during the ceremony that she has big shoes to fill after Collier’s more than 20-year tenure and service in the community.

Superior Court Judges Jennifer Snider, Camara Banfield and Suzan Clark presided over the ceremony and celebrated how Cornell’s investiture made women the majority on the 11-member bench.

“The fact that we’ve gone from one in 10 to six in 11, and we’re the majority now, is just so exciting to me,” Clark said. “When you look at the bench, we more closely mirror those people that we serve every day, and we do such a better job because of it.”

In addition to becoming the county’s first Asian American judge, Cornell said she’s also been told she is the first Tibetan American judge in the United States. She said Friday’s ceremony was not about just her, but her entire community.

“I would like to put out a call to all you young Tibetan Americans: I hope you don’t let me hold that distinction for much longer,” she said.

Prior to her appointment, Cornell, 40, worked for the attorney general’s Vancouver office since 2018, representing the Department of Children, Youth, and Families, as well as Clark College, Lower Columbia College, and the Center for Childhood Deafness and Hearing Loss/School for the Deaf. Before that, she worked for the attorney general and secretary of state in Olympia.

In a pre-recorded virtual message, Attorney General Bob Ferguson spoke about meeting Cornell when she joined the office and the impression she left on him. He said she struck him as a great listener who is empathetic, cares about the rule of law and cares about people.

“I was confident you’d be a leader in our office, and I’m confident you’ll be a leader among judges,” he said.

Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez appeared virtually to swear in Cornell.

Cornell thanked Gonzalez for the opportunity to interview him previously about the importance of judicial diversity. She recalled that afterward, he instructed her to sit behind the bench and hold the gavel for a photo. She said she was nervous and hesitant but that the photo has sat on her desk at every office she’s occupied since. The photo planted the seed in her mind that the judiciary was something she could achieve.

When Collier announced his retirement, it wasn’t the first time Cornell applied for a Clark County vacancy, or even the second, she said. She attributed her tenacity to the teachings of her parents growing up, and she thanked them for instilling perseverance and persistence into her character.

“What’s that saying, fifth time’s the charm?” she joked.

Cornell’s husband, Benjamin; daughter, Tenzin; and niece, Nima, helped her don the black judicial robe after she took her oath.

She promised to do her best for the community during her time on the bench and use the qualities she learned from her family.