An Interview with HER HONOR Author LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, the First Black Female Judge in Northern California

Her Honor – Interview with Author LaDoris Hazzard Cordell

Her Honor: My Life on the Bench…What Works, What’s Broken, and How to Change It is a compelling memoir that goes “behind the bench” of retired judge LaDoris Cordell’s decades-long career in the California court system.

Celadon Books sat down with Cordell to discuss judicial activism, life-changing court cases, and the importance of state judges.

Celadon Books: You were the first African American female judge in Northern California, appointed in 1982 to the Municipal Court in Santa Clara County by Governor Jerry Brown. How did being “the first” impact your view of your role on the bench?

LaDoris Hazzard Cordell: Being the first has its drawbacks. In my case, being the first black woman judge in northern California meant pressure, lots of it. There was pressure from black and brown communities who were counting on me to demonstrate that people who looked like them were up to the task. There was pressure from the governor’s office that I not embarrass him. And there was pressure from some of the mostly male prosecutors and law enforcement officers with whom they worked, as well as the good ole’ boy judges on my court, who anticipated that I would fail, offering further proof that people who looked like me were unqualified to work in their world. After all, my predecessor, the sole black male judge ever to preside on our court, had been unceremoniously removed from the bench for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to commit arson. Another 20 years would pass before the next black judge, yours truly, would grace that court. I knew that succeeding as the first broke barriers, and that failing as the first, reinforced them.

Celadon: You describe yourself as a “judge-of-all-trades,” rotating through a variety of assignments every few years. What type of cases did you find the most interesting?

Cordell: Many judges specialize — some become juvenile court judges, some preside solely over civil litigation, and some, for reasons I have yet to understand, enjoy handling only divorce cases. I would have been bored spending my 20 years on the bench assigned to preside over just one type of case, which is why I insisted on rotating through a variety of assignments. Presiding over adoptions and name changes were the most fulfilling assignments because I issued orders that gave litigants exactly what they wanted — new names and new kids — a win-win for everyone. The most challenging cases were those in which I had to use my discretion, when the law left it to me to decide what was right. That happened most frequently at sentencings in adult and juvenile criminal proceedings when I had to determine whether incarceration was appropriate, and if so, for how long. In those instances, it was all about tempering punishment with mercy — a judge knows it when she sees it. 

Celadon: Throughout Her Honor, you discuss the critical importance of judicial activism (the implementation of change to improve the legal system) within your profession. Tell us about one example of how you practiced judicial activism during your career.

Cordell: “Judicial activism” has been decried by conservatives as conduct in which judges should never engage. To them, the term describes judges who ignore precedent and instead, go rogue by making decisions that do not adhere to the rule of law. Viewed in that light, I was not a judicial activist. Rather, I was a judge who sought innovative ways to better implement justice. In that sense, I was, indeed, a judicial activist, and proud of it. There is only a very limited number of judges (1,600) in California, a state of 40 million people, which means that for those handful of individuals who are fortunate enough to sit on the bench, their time ought not be squandered. Rather, a judgeship is an opportunity to improve upon our legal system.

After I was injured by a drunk driver and learned that his punishment was little more than a slap on the wrist, I realized that the system was woefully ineffective in addressing and preventing the crime of drunk driving. As a consequence, I decided to order first-time drunk drivers in my court to install ignition-interlock devices in their cars that could detect if they had consumed alcohol. If, after blowing into the device, any alcohol was detected, the device would disable the ignition and prevent the driver from starting the car. When, in 1987, I began to order defendants to install the devices, I became the first judge in the state to do so. Today, ignition-interlock devices are mandatory in California for convicted drunk drivers. Moral of the story — one “activist” judge has the capacity to change the legal system for the better.

Celadon: To anyone reading your book, it’s clear that you cared deeply about the people who came into your courtroom and the decisions you made that changed their lives. What is one case that has stuck with you throughout the years?

Cordell: Of the many cases over which I presided during my nearly 20 years on the bench, some of which I describe in my book, one that has stuck with me is the case of Jessica T., a 15-year-old whom I found guilty of murder, even though she didn’t murder anyone, had no idea that a murder would take place, and wasn’t even present when the victim was killed. Under California’s felony-murder rule, Jessica T. was considered just as guilty as her friends who actually stabbed the victim to death. Because she had played a role in setting up the theft of the victim’s car, a felony, which eventually led to the murder, she was deemed as culpable as the individuals who did the killing. I believed the felony-murder rule to be unfair, but because I had taken an oath to uphold all of the laws of California, and not only those laws with which I agreed, I had no choice but to find Jessica T. to be a murderer. I ensured that she would carry that stigma for the rest of her life. 

Celadon: With three prominent Supreme Court justices nominated by the last president — and hundreds of other federal lifetime appointments made — how does that change the importance of judges at the state level?

Cordell: The bad news is that as of January 3, 2021, the United States Senate confirmed 234 federal judges nominated by Trump that included 174 to the trial courts, 54 to the appeals courts, and three to the U.S. Supreme Court. Because they have lifetime tenure and will likely serve well into their 70s and 80s, their conservative-leaning rulings will, for decades, impact the lives of Americans on an array of issues such as abortion rights, gay rights, and voting rights.

The good news is that we have state court judges. Recently, judges in Arizona, Nevada, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin ruled against allegations of illegal voting and malfunctioning voting devices in cases challenging the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. And it will be before state court judges that the former president and individuals pardoned by him can be held criminally and civilly accountable when it is alleged that their misconduct violated state laws. Going forward, look to our state courts, more than ever, to carry the torch of justice. 

Celadon: Looking forward, what is the most important reform you hope might be made in the judicial system?

Cordell: Judicial independence is the ability of judges to perform their duties free of influence or control by others. However, the influence of money in judicial elections, along with laws that permit the recall of judges, pose serious threats to that independence. Judicial campaigns to fill vacancies have devolved into battles among special interest groups who spend millions of dollars backing candidates whom they believe will do their bidding once seated on the bench. In many instances, that’s exactly what those elected judges do. Current judicial recall laws permit voters to wage campaigns to unseat state court judges simply because the judges’ decisions are not to their liking. 

We must abolish judicial elections and, in their place, utilize bipartisan merit commissions to fill vacancies and determine if judges whose terms have expired, should be retained. Recalls of judges should be permitted only for specific reasons such as misconduct, failure to perform the duties of the office, or conviction of serious crimes, and not when judges lawfully exercise their discretion, no matter how controversial the result. If judicial independence, a pillar of our democracy, is to be preserved, judicial election campaigns and baseless recall attacks must cease.

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