Fil-Am Judge Schofield had no Filipino consciousness, “I am not Filipino, I was an American baby”

Lorna Gail Schofield, the first Filipino-American in the history of the United States to serve as an Article III federal judge. "I am not Filipino, I was an American baby". Photo: Filipino Reporter

Fil-Am judge Lorna Schofield: 'I had no Filipino consciousness growing up'

"I was an American baby."

Thus began the unambiguous narrative of Lorna Gail Tiangco Schofield, 57, recently confirmed judge of the Southern District of New York and first Filipino American federal judge in U.S. history.

Born in Indiana, Schofield traced her roots to New Haven's blue collar community. Her father left the family when she was 3. Her mother, Priscilla Tiangco, a pharmacist from Batangas who graduated from UP, raised her as a single parent.

"There were no other Filipino families in New Haven," she said when interviewed by The FilAm at her office at the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse on Foley Square in downtown Manhattan. She recalled two Filipino families in nearby Fort Wayne, but interaction with them was largely limited to holidays.

In her classroom, she had only one African American and two Hispanic classmates. She was the only Asian.

"I didn't have much of an Asian identity," she said. "The people of Indiana overlooked the fact that I was different…that my mother spoke with an accent."

What she remembers, and this story made her laugh as she drew from the well of her past, was being cast in the annual Christmas pageant as the one of the three Marys.

"I was always the Asian Mary and I would be with the White Mary and the Black Mary holding a baby," she recalled while motioning a cradling gesture with both arms.

Schofield conceded being raised an all-American girl. No speaking Tagalog at home, and eating potatoes while her mother ate rice. Hence, she acknowledged no real Filipino consciousness developed as she was growing up. She did not feel like a minority.

"I have a theory," she said on why her mother raised her the way she did. "She was in college during the war. I read her transcript, and one of her years in college was interrupted. When the Americans came, she saw them as liberators and heroes. Since then, she wanted to become American, marry an American and have American children." Her mother died when Schofield was 20.

Schofield was previously married, and has a daughter who is now 25. "There she is," she pointed to a framed portrait of a young woman dressed as if she was going to a prom, sitting on her bookshelf. Schofield is her father's name, not her ex-husband's.

The judge declined the use of a tape recorder for our interview, but relented on being photographed. She was dressed in a business suit of lime green stripes with ruffled hem, and made a remark about hoping to "not look frivolous." The photo op was held at the courthouse lobby where our camera was being held by the building's security.

"Top floors are overrated," she said by way of a joke, as we were coming down the stairs from her second-floor chambers. True, the views are worth living in a Manhattan high-rise, but she said she's quite pleased with her lower-level office and preferred the convenience of easy exit in case of an emergency.

From lawyer to judge

She showed us a PowerPoint album of her family – her mother as a young bride; her mother together with her father dressed in his Air Force uniform; herself when she was 5 photographed with her mouth slightly open as if she was caught in the middle of a conversation. It was her fifth birthday party in the Philippines, and she was photographed with all her first cousins.

When Senator Charles Schumer recommended her, and later President Obama nominated her, to the position of Article III Judge of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York, Schofield reached out to the Filipino community for support. Diversity was important to the process; it was to Senator Schumer and to President Obama, she said.

She didn't know any Filipino organizations, but the community, such as lawyers groups, also reached out to her and welcomed her warmly. In the past year and a half, she has become visible, speaking at clubs and marching in the June 2 Philippine Independence Day Parade on Madison Avenue.

"After my mother died I had no contact with Filipinos," she said, her contact limited to her mother's sister in Manila, until she too died a few years later.

On December 14, 2012, her historic confirmation as the first Filipino American federal judge in American history was announced. In congratulating her, the Asian American Bar Association of New York described Schofield as "a highly qualified jurist" whose life story is the "epitome of the American Dream."

Schofield is now discovering, perhaps for the first time, her Filipino identity. After receiving the support of Filipino organizations in the confirmation process, she pledged to try to give back to the Filipino community whenever asked, of course within the considerable ethical constraints placed on federal judges.

Fil-Am judge will address PH forum

Judge Lorna Gail Schofield will address the Filipino American Legal Defense and Education Fund (FALDEF) on March 1 in her maiden public appearance after being named the first Filipino-American in the history of the United States to serve as an Article III federal judge, the Filipino Reporter has learned.

Schofield, who turned 57 on Jan. 27, was a distinguished attorney with the prestigious Manhattan firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP since 1988 specializing on complex civil litigation and white collar criminal defense.

She was nominated by President Barack Obama in April 2012 to succeed Judge Shira Sheindlin (ret.) on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Her nomination was confirmed by the U.S. Senate by a 91-0 vote on Dec. 13 and was welcomed with pride by the entire Asian-American community.

Article III judges are nominated by the President, confirmed by the Senate and appointed to lifetime tenure.

The FALDEF fund-raiser will be held at the official residence of Philippine Consul General in New York Mario de Leon, Jr. on 66th Street in Manhattan.

Details of the program and list of other guests of honor are still being finalized, according to organizers.

FALDEF is also reportedly eyeing as a guest of honor Filipino Pulitzer-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who came out in 2011 as an undocumented immigrant and helped bring to the political forefront the immigration reform issue.

FALDEF is a national organization that provides pro bono legal services to members of the Filipino-American community who are suffering legal injustices by reason of their immigrant origins and status and unable to engage legal aid and assistance on account of poverty.

It was helped and established by the late civil rights advocate John A. Payton, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Education Fund.

'Mixed marriage' child

As an only child born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and grew up in New Haven, Indiana, Schofield is a second-generation Fil-Am and the product of what used to be called a "mixed marriage" — her late mother, Priscilla Tiangco Schofield, was a Filipina war bride from Batangas City, Philippines, who married an American serviceman.

"My father left us when I was 3," Schofield disclosed in past interview with The College Magazine of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University (IU).

"My mother came to the United States because of her idealism about the country that had saved her during World War II, and remained here, I believe, because of the stigma and shame she would have suffered had she returned to the Philippines as a divorced woman. She was a pharmacist and stressed achievement, independence and self-sufficiency as essential values."

Prior to joining the Manhattan law firm, she served for four years as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, where her significant cases involved prosecuting domestic terrorism, arms smuggling, and tax fraud.

Schofield is "a top-flight lawyer who would be excellent as a federal judge," New York Sen. Charles Schumer said in a statement shortly after recommending her nomination to the President.

"She would make a uniquely experienced and talented judge on the Southern District Bench."

As the first Asian-American to be elected chair of the 70,000-member litigation section of the American Bar Association, she has been named a Super Lawyer for five years in a row by Super Lawyers magazine.

In 2008, she was named one of the nation's 50 most influential minority lawyers by the National Law Journal.

Magna cum laude

Schofield, double-majored in English and German on full scholarship and graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude in three years from Indiana University, and earned her J.D. from New York University (NYU) Law School, where she served as editor of the NYU Law Review and a Pomeroy scholar.

She went to work at the law firm of Clearly, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, and later became an assistant U.S. attorney in the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, where she worked as a prosecutor on cases involving domestic terrorism, arms smuggling and tax fraud.

As one of the top lawyers in the U.S., she's best known for successfully defending talk show host Rosie O'Donnell at trial in a multi-million lawsuit brought by the publishers of the defunct Rosie magazine.

In an interview with the IU magazine, Schofield said representing O'Donnell in 2003 was her most memorable — and most fun — case.

O'Donnell's publishers sued her for $300 million over her decision to terminate her interest in Rosie magazine after the company attempted to seize editorial control from her.

By the end of the contentious litigation, the presiding judge, not content with merely stopping the case, admonished lawyers for the publishing group, saying their case was "ill-conceived."

'Larger than life'

"She's a genius in a completely different way from the lawyers I work with, and she's earnest and funny and larger than life," O'Donnell described Schofield.

Since 2006, Schofield has been a director of Rosie's for All Kids Foundation, which provides non-profit organizations funding for at-risk children, parents, care-givers and teachers.

Schofield's law practice reads like best-selling legal novel, according to the IU magazine.

She took the Zenith Electronics Corporation private on behalf of its largest shareholder and creditor, a Korean multinational company, in U.S. Bankruptcy Court; obtained a $10 million award on behalf of an individually owned business for breach of a finder's agreement; secured a multi-million-dollar damages judgment in a business fraud case on behalf of a foreign bank; and secured criminal convictions in multiple jury trials as a prosecutor.

"One interesting case was early in my career as a prosecutor, against a group of African-American radicals, defendants who were charged with plotting to blow up armored cars and break political radicals out of prison," she recalled.

"The verdict was split — an acquittal on the conspiracy charges, and convictions on the weapons possession charges," she said.

"I guess it was hard to argue with the sawed off shotguns, Uzis and ammo found in their homes. I remember their supporters taunting me outside the courtroom and saying 'Go back to your country. You don't belong here. You have yellow skin.' I was young and stunned that people who themselves had endured racism could be so racist."

She continued: "I did not feel like a minority student at IU. The atmosphere at IU was fun. It was so big it had something for everyone — culture (high brow and low brow), sports (basketball and swimming), and all the craziness of thousands of kids living away from home for the first time and trying to figure out who they were."

With sources from GMA News and Filipino Reporter

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