LaDoris Cordell, Northern California’s first black female judge, has something to say

LaDoris Cordell has nearly a decade of letters in his hands—hundreds of pages of typescript spilling out of a black binder. Every Friday from 1993 to 2001, while serving on the Santa Clara County Superior Court, she wrote to her parents describing her day-to-day life as a judge and mother.

After retiring in 2001, Cordell visited her home in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. The next day, her mother pulled a box from the closet and asked Cordell what she wanted to do with all the letters her mother kept.

Cordell packed them up and brought them back to California.

“It took me a few years to decide to read them,” the retired judge told the Chronicle in an interview from her Palo Alto home. “I’m really worried about revisiting this stuff.”

But once she did, she said she was “just shocked at how many cases were on my bench during that time.”

Years later, the letters inspired Cordell’s memoir “Her Honor,” published last October by Celadon Books and nominated for the upcoming 41st Northern California Book Awards on September 11. In her memoir, Cordell recounts her role as the first black woman judge in Santa Clara County and the first woman to serve on the Superior Court of Northern California. In addition to detailing the case she presides over, Cordell — who will give up her gavel to serve on the Palo Alto City Council and spent five years as an independent police monitor in San Jose — explained and criticized the legal system.

Cordell’s writing comes as courts across the country, including the nation’s Supreme Court, have shifted to the right of the political spectrum, and women of color remain underrepresented in the judiciary.

“A lot of people end up in the trial courts of this country and don’t understand the system or what judges do,” she said. “I wrote the book (mostly) to inspire people to make the system better.”

‘you make way’

LaDoris Cordell and her parents at the swearing-in ceremony at Stanford Law School on June 11, 1982.

Courtesy of LaDoris Cordell

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Antioch College in Ohio in 1971 and a law degree from Stanford Law School in 1974, she struggled to find work. She interviewed with the corporate law firm but was unable to land a position – however, she was undeterred.

“The way I grew up, you carve paths where there seems to be no way,” Cordell said.

So she did it. In 1976, just two years after graduating, she opened her first private law firm in East Palo Alto, then a small town across from the Stanford University campus.

“In legal practice, you just hope people are going to come in, and they do,” she said, describing long and busy workdays providing services in different areas of legal practice, from criminal defense to family law.

After two years in private practice, she got a call from her alma mater: Stanford wanted her to serve as assistant dean of student affairs for the law school, where she worked to improve diversity in the admissions process. Cordell worked at Stanford University and continued to practice law in East Palo Alto until the early 1980s.

In 1980, a Santa Clara City Court judge asked her if she would volunteer as an interim judge to preside over small claims cases in Sunnyvale Court.

The first case she heard was ingrained in her memory: She recalled walking into a courtroom and seeing two black women in their 20s staring at her. At the time, black judges were few and far between, and less than 5 percent of the Santa Clara County population was black.

One client was a barber and the other was her former client, and the case was about whether the barber should be paid for her hair braiding services, which the client claimed was not done well enough to deserve compensation.

As a black woman, Cordell knows what it’s like to grow up with Afro-textured hair and what it means to braid one’s curls into a protective hairstyle. She remembers examining the defendant’s ears of corn and asking the plaintiff the questions she only knew to ask because her hair had been braided countless times. According to the details of the case, Cordell ordered the defendant to pay the plaintiff for her services, but the amount was less than the amount originally agreed by the parties. Both the barber and her client seemed pleased with the results.

“I thought, well, if this case comes before these judges…they don’t even know what questions to ask, let alone how to assess what’s going on, it made me realize that having a wide range of experience, not just It’s on the bench, it’s everywhere,” Cordell said. “There are so many different types of people in the world, and we want to address all of them fairly and in an informed way.”

The case inspired her to apply for then-governor. Jerry Brown takes a seat in the city court. Two years later, she was named Northern California’s first black female judge. Then, in 1988, she was elected to the Santa Clara Superior Court, where she served until 2001.

Cordell worked with Benita Jones, one of the first black women in the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office. Jones was Cordell’s bailiff.

“We’re a great team,” Jones said. “I got her back in the sense of being a bailiff and protecting everyone in the courtroom, and she has my support. There is trust.”

In her memoir, Cordell describes how she and Jones communicated wordlessly every day during the 20 years they worked together. They were a rare pairing back then – and they are today. Women of color remain underrepresented in both occupations.

Court Complexity

LaDoris Cordell in the 1990s, when she was serving on the Santa Clara Superior Court.

LaDoris Cordell in the 1990s, when she was serving on the Santa Clara Superior Court.

Courtesy of LaDoris Cordell

Most judiciaries in the state identify white, male and straight as white, male and straight, according to the latest available data from the California Judiciary Commission, which sets policy for the state’s courts and has collected demographics annually since 2006 information.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women (38.6 percent) and minorities (about 35 percent), who make up 50 percent and about 65 percent of California’s population, respectively, remain underrepresented in the courts.

Fewer than 5 percent of judges identified themselves as LGBTQ, although nearly a quarter of respondents provided no answers about gender identity or sexual orientation. (Cordell considers himself a member of the LGBTQ community.)

Studies have shown that factors such as race and gender can influence the decisions of trial judges and, in turn, the outcomes of defendants. Thelton Henderson, a retired federal judge who was also assistant dean of Stanford Law School when Cordell was admitted in the 1970s, said structural racism permeated existing institutions, laws and policies, noting that blacks and Latinos in California Prisons are overrepresented.

“It’s just built into our system,” Henderson said.

Since the start of his term in 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom has appointed 169 judicial officers, 49 percent of whom are women. More than half of his appointees identified as non-white. Last year, Newsom also created the California Judicial Mentor Program, where seasoned judges help recruit and provide professional advice to judicial applicants to the state’s superior and appellate courts.

Diversity on the bench drew national attention earlier this year during the Supreme Court’s confirmation hearing for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. As she watched with others across the country, Cordell said she was “frustrated” by the “blatant racism and sexism” Judge Jackson faced. Republican opponents accused Judge Jackson of being a “radical judge” and “soft on crime” — criticisms that also targeted Cordell.

Cordell said Judge Jackson’s courage emboldened her. “This woman will be writing dissents for a long time, and they will be wonderful dissents,” she said.

Still, “they’re not going to do well,” Cordell added, noting that the Supreme Court’s conservative majority recently ended constitutional abortion rights, expanded individual gun rights, and is prepared to consider issues related to voting and affirmative action. Action cases. fall.

Over the years, the federal judiciary has shifted to the right of the political spectrum as Republican politicians have set their sights on appointing conservative judges and justices. During his presidency, former President Donald Trump made 226 trial, appeal and Supreme Court appointments.

The end result is that the “ideological balance” between the Supreme Court and lower federal courts has shifted to the right, said Ryan Doerfler, a professor at Harvard Law School. “Without some form of reform effort,” Doerfler said, the U.S. will be dealing with this change within decades.

“Legal (and) institutional reform of the courts is absolutely possible,” he said, although it seems politically unlikely at the moment.

However, Doffler noted that as of August, President Biden had made more than 70 appointments to the federal judiciary, more than Trump has made at this stage of his presidency, which could offset his predecessor’s interest in the federal judiciary. Court influence. Doerfler also said he remains hopeful about the potential for long-term “meaningful” court reform.

Cordell said she believes “the state courts will now be the ones to save this democracy.”

“We can make decisions in our state that allow abortion to survive. That can counter voter suppression. There are ways to do that, but it’s not easy,” she added.

Questions and Commitments

Retired Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Radoris Cordell stands in Kings Square in front of Palo Alto City Hall on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. Cordell worked to rename the plaza to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King when she was on the Palo Alto City Council. Her memoir of the judge's career was nominated for a Northern California Book of the Year Award.

Retired Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Radoris Cordell stands in Kings Square in front of Palo Alto City Hall on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. Cordell worked to rename the plaza to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King when she was on the Palo Alto City Council. Her memoir of the judge’s career was nominated for a Northern California Book of the Year Award.

Lea Suzuki/Chronicles

In “Her Honor,” Cordell writes about inequities in the American legal system, pointing to problems with juvenile court procedures, how judges are trained and selected, how poorly jurors are paid, and more.

She recalls a difficult case in 1992 where she had to decide the fate of a 16-year-old girl charged with murder. Cordell is the sole decision maker in this case; there is no jury because in most states, including California, juveniles are not entitled to a jury trial.

Although the defendant was not present at the time of the murder, she was involved in a related carjacking. Restricted by California’s felony murder law, Cordell convicted the young defendant of felony murder, a decision she struggled to make because she disagreed with statutes that would treat a murderer’s co-conspirator as equally guilty even if they didn’t Plan or participate in a killing.

Cordell sentenced the defendant to a year in a juvenile ranch scheme and was heavily criticized for her decision. At the end of her book, Cordell suggests a number of reforms, including recommending jury trials for minors accused of felonies and ending California’s 2019 revision of the felony murder doctrine.

While Cordell believes California is leading the way in some areas, such as its attempts to fight racial bias in jury selection, she believes it — and the rest of the country — can improve on many issues.

“We have these great principles. All men are created equal and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Everyone has the right to expedited trial, trial by jury in criminal and civil cases, the right to due process, the right to oppose freedom The right to incriminate, the right to cross-examine,” Cordell said. “The problem is the implementation of these principles.”

Chasity Hale is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email:, Twitter: @chas_hale

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