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.
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?
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.
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: 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.