A child of working class immigrant Chinese parents, Justice Doris Ling-Cohan was often the only or one of few Asian Americans in school and in her field. Starting as an attorney, she made history as the first Asian American woman in New York State’s Supreme Court in 2002. Her hitherto most notable ruling has been declaring the unconstitutionality of the same-sex marriage ban in New York. Ling-Cohan is also a founding member of the Asian American Bar Association, the Jade Council, and the New York Asian Women’s Center, the first organization of its kind to address domestic violence in New York’s Asian communities.
An Interview with Justice Doris Ling-Cohan
by Team As[I]Am
Q: What has been the trajectory of your career? Where did you start from? What challenges did you face?
A: I did not start out to be a lawyer, but was asked to represent someone at a student government hearing, and we won. I thought it was great helping someone and decided to go to law school. At that time few APAs went to law school, so there were 3 out of 360 in my class. I became a public interest lawyer. When I decided to run for judge, I had few role models. There were no APA legislators, so no one was able to speak on my behalf. APAs were not considered politically relevant, so no one cared that there were so few APA judges. People were surprised that I won because no APA had run in my district for any office, and won.
Q: Could you talk a little bit about the work that you did to begin NYAWC (the New York Asian Women’s Center)? How can young people begin that kind of organizing work and make it successful?
A: As a law student, I had helped an APA victim of domestic violence who was being prosecuted for child neglect. She had no place to take her children, so she left them with her husband and snuck back to [cook] for them, but would leave just before the husband came home, for her safety. When I graduated I joined a number of women concerned about the lack of resources for APA women suffering from domestic violence. We started a part time hotline, did community education and opened our homes to take women and children in, seeking a safe haven. We got a $10,000 Ms. Foundation grant that allowed us to hire a part time social worker. We pooled our resume to compete for a larger grant, which allowed us to continue to build, hiring more staff, renting an office. We started with nothing but were determined.
What we did was truly grassroots, and can be duplicated by young folks passionate about an issue.
Q: Of all the work you’ve done, do you have one moment when you felt you most contributed to social change?
A: This is a hard question. I am proud of the New York Asian Women’s Center and how it has changed so many [lives]. However, I think I will be remembered for my decision on marriage equality, which held that same sex couples have the right to marry, which I wrote in Hernandez v. Robles.
Q: How do you believe your identity has shaped the way that you approach your work as a justice or in any of your previous careers?
A: As a judge I apply the law equally to all who come before me, but my experience makes me understand injustice and when the law is not equally applied.
Q: Do you have any practical advice for young Asian Americans on breaking down stereotypes and getting involved in politics and other movements towards social change?
A: Be passionate and remember why you wanted to pursue politics in the first place. Build coalitions. Remember where you came from. If you are interested in politics, work on a few campaigns.