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November 01, 2015 Waymaker

Judge Ladoris Cordell (Ret.): Pioneer for Justice

By Judge Mary-Margaret Anderson

I met with retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell in her San Jose, California, office just days before she retired again—this time from a five-year term as the independent police auditor for the City of San Jose. Judge Cordell was the first female African American judge in Northern California. Because of her commitment to justice in all forms, whether in the context of family law, criminal law, or police conduct, she ran problem-solving courts years before the term was coined. Her pursuit of justice has extended from work with poor children in Mississippi through an illustrious legal career to her latest endeavor to bring African American classical composers to the attention of the public. She fits the Waymaker definition of “a courageous pioneer for justice” hands down.

Judge Cordell, the themes of community and service seem to run through your life history. You were born in Pennsylvania. I’m curious about the nature of the community that you were raised in.

It’s an interesting community, actually. I was raised in an African American community within Ardmore, Pennsylvania, which is smack in the middle of the Main Line, where the old money of this country originated. We’re talking about the DuPont family, the Heinz family, and others.

I grew up on a street called Aubrey Avenue. All of the folks who lived there were the service providers for the wealthy people on the Main Line. My mother’s mother was a domestic. My grandfather was the cook, and eventually head chef, at the Haverford School, which is a private school for boys. My father’s mother was a domestic on the Main Line as well. I had a great uncle who ran a limousine service; he was a chauffeur. So it was the wealthy people of the Main Line that provided all these jobs for all these black folks who lived in Ardmore.

Where did you go to college?

I went to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It was amazing. There were no grades. The theory is you learn to learn, not because of a grade. You only go to school there three months at a time and then leave for what they called co-ops. For my first co-op, I chose to go to the Mississippi Delta. We’re talking the late 1960s in the South. And it was great. I set up a tutoring center for black children in Mayersville, Mississippi. I stayed in Tougaloo, Mississippi, for a little bit, and the Ku Klux Klan blew up the house across the street. I had the experience of hearing the house blow up and then being interrogated by the FBI. I was just 17 years old and seeing a lot. I’d never seen cotton bolls before. I walked in cotton fields and picked a few bolls of cotton and thought, “There’s no way I could do this.” I would have been a terrible slave; it just wouldn’t have worked.

When I got back to Antioch, I started as a Spanish major. So for my next co-op, I studied at the University of Guanajuato and was able to travel through Mexico. I came back very discouraged. I didn’t want to major in Spanish anymore because I found the same kind of racial discrimination that I was experiencing in this country.

I then decided to major in theater because I love music. My sisters and I, the Hazard Sisters, as we were known, sang together in church, and we just had the music gene. My sisters have beautiful voices, and my younger sister also played the cello, while I played the violin. My older sister majored in piano and voice. So I decided to switch to theater. And it turned out to help me so much in my legal career.

I found I really loved the directing part, but I didn’t believe that I could actually make a living in theater. So in my senior year, I ended up taking a business law class at Antioch because someone suggested it. And I felt like, “okay, I get this.” I graduated with a degree in drama in 1971. Then I just decided, I’ll apply to law schools. I got rejection after rejection, primarily because my transcript had no grades on it.

So, the consequences of a nontraditional education?

Yes, law schools were not ready for a transcript that just had evaluations and no grades. I’m getting rejected, and I hadn’t heard from Stanford, so I called the admissions office and said, “You know, I’ve applied, but there’s no grades there. I don’t know what I can do.” I can’t remember what the response was, but not long thereafter, I got an acceptance letter.

So then I began my three years at Stanford Law School. I was the only African American woman in my class. At that time I had this huge afro, bigger than Angela Davis’s, and that thing was huge. I’d look around at all the students and nobody looked like me and there were no professors of color at all.

What was the job market like for you?

Picture this. It’s 1971, you have a huge afro, you’re the only black woman in your class, and you’re from Stanford. I’d go interview at law firms and couldn’t get hired. Then comes along the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and pointed me in the direction of what my legal career was going to be about—service. They had something called the Earl Warren Fellowship Program. They would give a stipend salary over a period of four or five years to African American lawyers who would go open law practices in the South. Well, I didn’t want to go to the South. I wanted to be in East Palo Alto, just across the freeway from wealthy Palo Alto and Stanford University. At the time it was a predominantly black and brown community with no lawyers and no law offices. So I applied and said, “I want to do what you’re doing in the South, but I want to do it in East Palo Alto,” and I was awarded the first ever Earl Warren Fellowship not in the South. I think my salary my first year was $13,000. I got in my car and I drove to East Palo Alto and I found a boarded-up building on the corner of University and Weeks—this big old rundown house.

Now, mind you, I had no money. In East Palo Alto there were two banks, and both laughed me out the door when I asked for a loan. So I decided to write up a petition with just one question and I went door to door in East Palo Alto asking, “If there were a lawyer in this community, would you go to this lawyer?” I got pages of names and then went back to Wells Fargo. I got a loan and was able to remodel the place. It ended up just beautiful. It had a lobby with a fireplace, a full kitchen, a library, a conference room, and three offices. But now I had a mortgage to pay, plus my student loans. I had to get things going. So I called the local paper and told them there was going to be a lawyer in East Palo Alto! I got a front-page story and that’s how the business started to come in.

What kind of cases came in your door?

Anything and everything. Divorces, criminal cases, bankruptcy. And that’s a real dangerous thing to do because when you get out of law school, you don’t know anything. Not only did I not have the benefit of other lawyers in a firm, I didn’t even have a secretary.

I delivered my first child in October 1975, and I opened my law practice in January. I was in debt, had a new law practice, a baby, and a husband who did the best he could as a frustrated professional tennis player. You can’t make a lot of money doing that, and so there were issues. Eventually, we moved to Mountain View. I was paying the bills, but it was really hard. Then I got a call from Stanford asking me if I would be interested in being the assistant dean of the Law School. I didn’t get the job right away, but in 1978, I became the assistant dean. I kept my law practice going, which was great because I could involve the law students in some of my cases. But my main job was to recruit students of color. They told me, “You make that happen.” And they gave me free rein to be creative. I came up with this whole strategy, and at the end of the first year, Stanford had the highest enrollment of students of color of all top law schools in the United States.

I did that for four years and then I just got kind of tired of it. We were at the top of our game and I pretty much hit a glass ceiling. Then I get this phone call from someone I’ve never heard of, Mark Thomas, who was a municipal court judge. He said, “We have this Judge Pro Tem Program. We don’t have any people of color and I’m trying to diversify.”

Then began a two-and-half-year odyssey to apply for a judgeship. On April 13, 1982, the Governor’s Office called and said, “You’re a judge.” I had no role models. There were very few people of color who were judges when I was coming up as a lawyer.

What was the transition like for you?

In 1982, there was no training at all for judges. They just gave you a robe and you go to work. It’s crazy. . . . But I had theatrical training, and when you’re a judge, you’re the producer/director. You tell people when to sit, when to stand up, when to speak.

So I started off judging and they put me right into doing criminal cases. I was in municipal court for six-and-a-half years and then I wanted to move up to the Superior Court. A vacancy came up in the Santa Clara Superior Court, and so I ran in 1988 and won.

My first assignment was family court. It was the least desirable assignment, so it went to the new judges. But I wanted that court because I knew that the decisions there most impact people’s lives. I ended up being the supervising judge after the first year. I was there for three years and it was the toughest assignment I had in of all my 19 years on the bench. It’s hard work if you really care. You have to really be patient with people. You’ve got to try to bring rationality to systems. You don’t know if you’re making the right decisions, but you do the best you can.

You were involved with many innovative projects in your various assignments.

True. I was the first judge in California, maybe in the country, to order convicted drunk drivers to put breath devices in their cars. In 1985, I was hit by a drunk driver. I was off for eight weeks with a fracture in my spine. When I went back to work, I noticed we were doing the same thing we had always done with drunk drivers––pay a fine, move on.

In 1987, I started imposing the interlock device. Now there are designated pilot counties to mandate this device, and if there is success, the device will be mandatory in all the counties. So, what I started after getting hit by a drunk driver in 1985 is almost the law.

I understand you had some other ideas about sentencing that were new at the time.

One of the toughest things judges do is sentence people. I had two young white men come into my court. These two men burned a cross on the lawn of a black family and wrote “KKK” on the house. I gave them a choice. I said, “You can go to jail for a month or two or you can take a class on racial diversity.” They opted for the class. I also had them write a letter of apology to the family. They went to every one of the classes. And I really believe I saw a change in attitude.

Now, of course, restorative justice projects are fairly common.

Exactly. That wasn’t the case back in the 1980s.

You retired from the bench somewhat early.

It was 18 years, nine months, and 29 days. I didn’t wait for the full 20. I tried as best I could to try to change how “Three Strikes” was being utilized in this county and I became so frustrated. The first two convictions had to be serious violent felonies. But the third could be stealing pizzas. It started really being utilized in 1996 because it was finally confirmed that judges had discretion in dismissing a strike or reducing it to a misdemeanor. DAs then started really using Three Strikes laws, especially in Santa Clara County. It seemed that anyone who moved and who was black or brown got a Three Strikes hit. I think I was the only judge who was actually exercising that discretion. Word went out in the jails that if you get your Three Strikes case in Judge Cordell’s court, she might reduce the strike. So people charged with Three Strikes were pleading guilty in front of other judges on the condition that they could be sentenced by me. I got deluged with these cases; the pressure was just incredible. It was a very tense, awful time for me. After a few years of this, I decided to retire.

How did you decide what to do next?

Stanford contacted me about the position of vice provost and special counselor to the president of Stanford. I was there for eight years but not teaching! The main job was really administrative work.

During that time I helped bring the East Palo Alto Youth Court into being. I would preside, and they had young people who were the lawyers and the jury members.

I understand you entered politics while working at Stanford that second time.

In 2004, I decided to run for City Council in Palo Alto. Some neighbors came to my house and said, “The City Council is so dysfunctional, we need to do something.” There were at least 11 candidates, and they were spending $30,000, $40,000 to run their campaigns. I refused to accept any money and I said, “This is my stance against this ridiculous stuff where you buy elections.” And so I took no money and set a limit of $1,500 to spend.

But how could you manage? You had to at least buy lawn signs!

I went online and found a company that makes these little metal stands that you put the lawn signs on. And I got water resistant paper. You fold it in half, staple it, and just slide it over the stand. I invited people to make their own lawn signs. I provided the paint. We had the most creative, wonderful lawn signs. They became the talk of the town.

You’re some kind of brilliant marketer! And you won the election.

I served on the City Council for four years. I learned a lot about cities and how they function. And, amazingly enough, an issue came up at the time of black people getting stopped frequently by the Palo Alto Police. I said, “We need to have a police auditor.” It took a year, but I got a unanimous vote and they brought civilian oversight into Palo Alto.

Finally, I had decided to leave Stanford, but wasn’t ready to retire. I did some private mediation work. And then again, somebody called me and asked if I knew anybody who might be interested in a police oversight job in San Jose. It was my partner, my wife, who said, “You know, you could do that job.” So I ended up applying. Oddly, I was hired April 13, 2010, to be the independent police auditor for San Jose. I had also been appointed to the bench on April 13, but in 1982.

It’s amazing that you find yourself in this position at this point in time––with what is happening now across the country regarding police conduct.

When I first came here, I wrote an op-ed in the San Jose newspaper about putting cameras on police officers. I’ve talked about bias-based policing. Now it’s the issue of the day.

As you go into this next phase of your life, will you continue to be active on these issues?

Absolutely. And with other endeavors as well. I co-founded an organization called the African American Composer Initiative to bring the music of black composers to the world. There are many composers who composed the most beautiful operas, cantatas, concertos, piano solos, and choral music and they’ve never been heard of except by a handful of people. We put on a concert once a year in January that we expanded to two days because we have so many people coming. We hold it in East Palo Alto. I will continue to study piano and draw. I have had some success selling my drawings, and I donate all the proceeds to nonprofits. And I’m thinking of pitching an idea for a radio show. I was a legal analyst for CBS for four years and had a show back when I was a lawyer called Crime, the Courts, and You. I would enjoy a radio show again, where there is time to really flush out and discuss the issues.

Judge Cordell, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for your public service and for your time today.