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LaDoris Cordell by Suma Jane Dark Photography for Wear Your Voice Magazine.

LaDoris Cordell by Suma Jane Dark Photography for Wear Your Voice Magazine.

Everyone has heroes.  A lot of them are famous folks that they’re never going to get to meet.  I have plenty of those, too.  Luckily for me, I met a woman who became a hero before my eyes and ears as her story unfolded before me.  In fact, LaDoris Cordell would be my top pick for the Supreme Court nomination.

A perfect balance to Scalia’s dangerously racist, sexist, and homophobic politics, LaDoris Hazzard Cordell has been an integral member of California’s judicial system and political sphere for decades. Having recently moved to California, I only became aware of her last summer when she interviewed Kim Kardashian for the Commonwealth Club.  I sat through the entire interview, bored to death with Kim, but wondering about the clever moderator who was asking all of the questions and balancing Kardashian’s somewhat cardboard responses with her own wit and personality. I kept thinking “Who is this woman and why aren’t we asking her the questions?”  After the show, I walked up to her and began chatting with both LaDoris and her wife, Florence.  They asked me, with a gleam in their eyes, “So what did you really think?”  With that simple question and a smile, a friendship was formed, and I was invited to come to their home to interview LaDoris regarding her personal life, career, and recent events.

To give a bit of a background on LaDoris Cordell, she is now a retired judge of the Superior Court of California and recently retired Independent Police Auditor for the City of San Jose. Retirement has allowed Cordell to speak out against police misconduct in ways that she had been limited before due to her profession. Before both positions, Cordell was assistant dean at Stanford Law School, where she helped develop a program to increase minority recruitment.  Within a year, Stanford Law School went from last to first place in enrollment of African American and Hispanic students, among major law schools.

She has received numerous awards and prizes for social activism and breaking race and gender barriers, including the Rose Bird Memorial Award from the California Women Lawyers and the Rosa Parks Ordinary People Award from the NAACP. She was the first woman African-American judge in Northern California and the first woman African-American Superior Court judge in Santa Clara County, California.”  To top things off, Cordell is a brilliant musician who is helping bring African American composers into the spotlight.

LaDoris Cordell is the hero you didn’t know we had.  When I sat down with Cordell and her wife Florence in their Palo Alto home, it was abundantly clear how hard and how long she had been fighting as she told her story.

WYV: How do you think your experience as a woman of color has informed your work?

LD: My life as a woman of color has influenced everything I’ve ever done. From judging where I had to prove myself coming into a white male bastion which is what the judging world was at that time. Today, you turn on the TV and see Black and Latino judges but back in the day, in the real world, I was an anomaly. I felt the pressure that we all do when you’re the first of whatever it is you do. If you mess up, they’re not gonna have anyone else like you for a long time. So the pressure was on not to screw up or make a mistake. And then I go to San Jose for a high profile job where I had to walk a delicate line.

[As Independent Police Auditor] the stakeholders were the police offices–that’s the union, police leadership, and community–and my eleven bosses–the Mayor and the City Council. And yet I was independent. So I was walking that line so I got what was needed to get things done. And then I had to make sure the people weren’t alienated so I had to walk that line as well. I think I did so successfully for those five years.

After being a judge for 20 years, I knew how to get my guard up, what things I can say, what I can’t do. I also a little more circumspect and held back less than when I first started as a judge. [By that time] I know who I am and also being gay–today, nobody cares but back in the day, the 80s and a little into the 90s, that was another issue. So I had a big burden from blackness, gayness, and my femaleness. I just had to learn.

Related: How to be Loved When You’re Black & Broken

Ladoris Cordell by Suma Jane Dark Photography for Wear Your Voice Magazine.

Ladoris Cordell by Suma Jane Dark Photography for Wear Your Voice Magazine.

WYV: Tell us about your family.

LD: I have two daughters now, oldest is 39 and youngest is 34. I have 3 grandchildren now too. My eldest is a lawyer and my youngest is a stay at home mom. She worked at the Museum of Art in Fresno and in San Diego as their events planner. Now she loves being at home raising her little boy.

WYV: When did you and your wife, Florence, meet?

LD: We met 30 years ago.

Florence chimes in: I was a psychologist and I was running a group with a colleague. One of the things we had going was a probation group. It was always all men. But one day, lo and behold, there was not one but three women, and all of them were shoplifters. I thought “oh, this is interesting.” I was tired of what I was doing, and this was new and interesting. I wanted to create a program for shoplifting women, but I need them referred. Do you think judges would refer them to me? (My colleague said) the only judge who could do that is Cordell. Eventually, we met.

LD: At the time, I was married with two kids. Florence has two sons and was divorced at the time. Her oldest son is five years older than my oldest, and he’s a lawyer, so our two oldest are lawyers. And her youngest son is a doctor, so she’s a good Jewish mom.

Florence: When we started living together, the impetus was when LaDoris started running for Superior Court.

Cordell: I was appointed by Jerry Brown in 1982 to the Municipal Court, which does not exist today. In 1998 the voters of Ca passed Prop 220 which unified the Municipal Court and the Superior Court, so it’s just the Superior Court now. Which was fine because Municipal Court judges make less and do different things. Now we all do the same job with the same salary. When I was appointed in 1982, I wanted to move up to the Superior Court with the big guys and the big trials. And the only way to do that was to be appointed by the governor or run if there’s a vacant seat.

The governor then was Deukmejian–Republican reactionary conservative– no way he was going to appoint me for anything. I ran a campaign for six months–countywide–for the fourth largest county in California (with 90 judicial officers). My opponent was a white male prosecutor, and I beat him in that election

Florence: The impetus for us moving in together was we were concerned about some campaign talking about our “unnatural” relationship. So it occurred to us the best way to fight that kind of thing is to be so obvious about it that nobody knows quite what to do with it. Here’re two unmarried women raising their children. It’s economic to live together.

LD: But we never denied anything. We just took the wind out of the sails of those who really didn’t want me to win that seat.

WYV: Tell us about the election that placed you on the Superior Court. 

LD: I won election to the Superior Court, and this was a big freaking deal in Santa Clara County, maybe even Northern California. I was the first black woman judge in all of Northern California to be on the municipal court, and then I was the first black woman judge to be on the superior court in all of Northern California and the first African-American of either gender to be on the bench in Santa Clara County so this was a big deal.

I won the election in June, but the vacancy didn’t actually start until January the following year.

What governors have always done for whoever wins, they just appoint you for the seat after you’ve already won because the court needs the body. Our court went to Deukmejian and said she’s won, put her in. And for the first time in the history of governors in California, he refused to appoint me. He preferred to let that seat sit open for six months–empty, with no help–than to appoint me.

WYV: What an ass.

LD: True. So the presiding judge of the superior court was outraged and went to the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court to request a temporary appointment until I was officially sworn in January. So Chief Justice, for the first time in California history, then appointed me to the seat I already won.

I get a call from the media that they had stopped Governor Deukmejian when he was on his way to China. They ask him if he’s going to appoint me and he said no because he “I don’t want her to be able to tout the fact that she was a Deukmejian appointee”. So I’m asked for my response and I tell the reporter “I’ll call you back” because I didn’t know to say. I go to Florence who’s so good at this stuff and she goes “I know what you should say”.

So I call the person back and gave my quote. The reporter said to me “can I print that?” and I said “Oh please, be my guest.” My response was, per Florence, “At last, Governor Deukmejian and I have something in common: it would be a source of great embarrassment to both of us if I were to be known as a Duke Deukmejian appointee!” Isn’t that great?

LaDoris Cordell holding a portrait of a young LaDoris during her Stanford years.

LaDoris Cordell holding a portrait of a young LaDoris during her Stanford years.

WYV: Have you ever experienced racial profiling or police misbehaving with you or a family member?

Yes. In 1975, I became a lawyer and I was living in Palo Alto in an apartment. I had given birth to child number one 6 or 7 months before. My African-American husband and I decided we were going to go out to someone’s house for a party. We had a friend with us, another African-American male. So we get in the car with my then-husband driving. This was maybe 8 PM with a babysitter for the little one. We’re driving from Palo Alto to Menlo Park. And all of a sudden, police cars–we’re surrounded by them.

Related: How Black Police Officers Uphold White Supremacy

We pull over thinking there must be somebody in trouble, but it was us! There were, at least, two cars; my recollection is that there were more, but I can’t remember, I was so freaked out. Officers open the car doors and tell us to get out with our hands up. So I’m like what the heck is going on here? I’m a lawyer! Stanford! But I still had a big afro then.

I get out of the car, and we’re at the corner of Willow Road and Middlefield. It’s in a very busy intersection, and there’s a store that’s still there on the corner. We were ordered out and pulled over in front of this corner. They told us to stand against the wall, spread eagle, and to not move. I don’t know what’s happening, it’s terrifying, and as I look over my right, I see guns at my head. I remember my husband saying something like what’s going on and then someone yelling “Turn around or we’ll blow your head off!”

So, truly I have experienced that terrible, terrible fear that you’re going to die. Somebody’s going to pull the trigger and for what? People, by the way, are driving by and seeing all of this, so it’s thoroughly embarrassing. Completely embarrassing because it’s daylight still. At some point, we were allowed to turn around, put our hands down, and go back to the car.

There was no search warrant, nothing. Then the police told us that there had been a robbery of a Baskin-Robbins ice cream place that was in Palo Alto, not far from this intersection. So I said what was the description? They said three black males on foot. We’re in a car, and there’re two black males and a female which made no sense. And we were just told we could go–got no apology or nothing. And I was absolutely terrified. Just terrified!

That experience informed who I am today, who I was as a judge, and who I was as a police auditor. I’m not a hater. I don’t hate police, and I’m very aware of how much power they have with that gun, that badge, that taser and baton. They have an immense amount of authority over our bodies and we see it everyday. We hear and view things all the time about when that authority is abused. That just informed everything about me. I didn’t even do anything afterward. I remember that I called my mother who was just outraged, and I didn’t do anything, meaning, I didn’t file a complaint because I didn’t know that I could do it–it was the 70s. I was terrified.

I thought, okay. I have played by the rules. I did everything I’m supposed to. I went to school. I go to Stanford. I passed the bar. And, I’ll tell you, I just felt like we were all just three n—— [to the police officers]. Totally messed over and “oh well sorry–we made a mistake”. Not even a sorry and just moved on. It just made me reflect on what do I need to do–what do I need to do to be safe but also to just say I am legitimately here. Why do I have to keep looking over my shoulder when I’ve done everything society has told me to do. And my story’s not unique. Not unique at all.

WYV: Speaking of which, I’m certain you’re very familiar with the Sandra Bland case. What are your feelings about it?
LD: I’ve been on MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. . There are so many feelings I have about this. What I can tell, because of the experience I’ve gotten from being a police auditor, that when you watch the video, and you watch the stop and you watch the interactions, there are so many things that are wrong. So I’m just going to put that in one box.
But there’s another box, and it’s about black women and the labels that are put on us. Those of us that are outspoken or educated. I’ve seen it in workplaces where black women have been employed and when they speak up, they get labeled as arrogant troublemakers, intimidating, and it’s all negative stuff. And I’ve seen it repeatedly, and I think I probably was a victim of that kind of stereotyping when I was on the bench.
I looked at Sandra Bland, and she answered his question and said: “Yeah, I’m irritated.” But then she spoke up and said “Here’s why I’m irritated. I moved over because I thought you were trying to get by me and you pulled me over. That’s why I’m irritated”.
It’s all of those things in any other instance would be just fine. You’re saying here’s why I’m irritated. She didn’t call him any names at all. But she was not submissive. She was not just giving in to his authority, and that is what triggered everything, in my view. Once he encountered that attitude from this black woman, and again, I don’t know how the stereotypes informed his perception of who she was and what she was doing, but my guess is, based on what I saw, was that he had bought into this stereotype: here I am dealing with this uppity (that’s another descriptor), arrogant, not submissive, not being polite to me and that offends me. And I have a badge and a gun, and I can deal with this.
Whether or not she committed suicide is really irrelevant to the discussion because she should have never been in jail in the first place. There’s something in the law called “proximate cause”. This big famous case called the Palsgraf case. It’s a case where somebody gets killed or injured and it all goes back to somebody at the beginning of the chain of events. So when you look at Sandra Bland, regardless of how she died, the proximate cause is an officer who, I believe, violated the law and certainly violated police procedure in not so much the stop but everything that happened after. Once he said “Do you mind putting your cigarette out?” Everything from then on was illegal, in my view, and inappropriate.
Ladoris Cordell by Suma Jane Dark Photography for Wear Your Voice Magazine.

Ladoris Cordell by Suma Jane Dark Photography for Wear Your Voice Magazine.

WYV: How do you feel we can fix police brutality? 
LD: Body cameras and things like that are fine but I’ll tell you another thing people aren’t talking about. And that research has shown that if you put more women in law enforcement, there are fewer complaints of use of force, there’s fewer uses of force, and the atmosphere in the departments tend to be less tense and less hostile. So we need more women in law enforcement. 
The problem is these departments aren’t very welcoming of women, but that’s something we need to really look at and figure out how we can get young women, in their teens, interested in going into this. That could be a major game changer. So you have all these other things you can do like body cameras and community policing, but there’s this big whole other thing that people are not talking about.
When I say there’s research, I’m not making it up. I was in UC Berkeley on a panel and one of the researchers made the statement that there’s actual research showing that when more women are in law enforcement, you have a better department and a better relationship with the community.
 WYV: That’s fantastic!
LD: That doesn’t mean that every woman in law enforcement would be great. There’s always going to be bad apples, but I absolutely believe that, just like with judging, when you get more women in, I think it becomes a more humane and compassionate profession.
LaDoris Cordell by Suma Jane Dark Photography, for Wear Your Voice Magazine.

LaDoris Cordell by Suma Jane Dark Photography, for Wear Your Voice Magazine.

WYV: It sounds like you’ve had a lot of limitations to serving justice the way you think it should be served. What do you think is the biggest contributor to justice not actually being served?

LD: In my view, the criminal justice system is broken and it’s also my view is that it can be fixed. It isn’t just one thing that needs to be fixed. There are systemic changes that take political will. There are rules in effect that don’t make sense that needs to change, and that comes from legislators who enact laws.

Then you have the process of how judges are selected, how they’re vetted, how they’re trained. When I started judging, there was no training. I got a call from the governor to go get my robe. So then, of course, there’s the issue of law enforcement, policing, and the issue with prosecutors who have so much power and are mostly white.There’s the whole issue with judges and prosecutors–people in the system–who should reflect the communities they service. That doesn’t happen.
There’s also the larger issue of bias. We’re living in this country that’s so diverse ethnically and we’re not really prepared to deal with the issues that come up [because of this]. This system is broken because it’s skewed and biased against poor people and people of color. The more money one has, the better one fares in the criminal justice system. Just like with voting: the more money one has, the more likely they are to get elected. So there are so many pieces to this.
LaDoris Cordell is currently working on her autobiography as well the African American Composer Initiative, which she co-founded. 


Laurel Dickman is an intersectional feminist, plus size model, stylist, and fat activist that can also be found via her blogs, Exile In Dietville and 2 Broke Bitches. She grew up in the south between Florida and North Carolina, migrating to the Portland, OR in 2005. All three places inform her perspective of the world around her a great deal. While in Portland, she worked with the Alley 33 Annual Fashion Show, PudgePDX, PDX Fatshion, Plumplandia, and numerous other projects over the near decade that she was there. In August of 2014, she moved to the Bay area with her partner, David and trusty kitty, Dorian Gray. She continues her body positive and intersectional feminism through various forms of activism, fashion, photography projects, and writing from her home in the East Bay. She can be reached at laurel@wyvmag.com and encourages readers to reach out to her to collaborate!

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