Across her long and notable career, retired Palo Alto Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell has been known for many firsts: She was the first lawyer to open a private practice in East Palo Alto. She was the first California judge to require convicted drunk drivers to install breathalyzers in their vehicles. She was the first Black woman to sit on the Superior Court bench in Northern California.
Now, Cordell is preparing to celebrate another first — the release of her memoir on Oct. 26.
"Her Honor: My Life on the Bench ... What Works, What's Broken and How to Change It" chronicles Cordell's experience as a state trial court judge ruling on cases that had life-changing repercussions on plaintiffs and defendants alike, as well as on her personally.
A visit to her parents' home in Philadelphia inspired Cordell to think about writing a book after her mother pulled out eight years of letters Cordell had written home from in her chambers, mostly on Fridays, after the court calendar was clear.
Reached by phone at her Palo Alto residence, Cordell said, "I wrote (to my parents) about everything. I wrote very personally about how I felt about some of the decisions I had to make."
Cordell didn't immediately jump into writing a book. It took the encouragement of renowned Stanford University Humanities professor Arnold Rampersad to motivate her.
"(After) playing tennis with (Rampersad) and chatting a bit, I eventually told him about the letters. He said, 'Can I see some of them?' and I said, 'Absolutely not!' This guy is a world-famous writer, and these are just some letters to my parents," Cordell said.
Cordell noted Rampersad kept asking to see the letters and she kept putting him off. "But he worked on me, and finally I let him see some of the letters. He called and said, 'I think you have a book here.' That's really what started me seriously thinking about writing about my time on the bench."
"Her Honor" is a highly readable mix of memoir and commentary on the justice system primarily in state trial courts, taking readers behind the scenes, where judges wrestle with plea bargains, sentencing hearings and jury selections. Throughout, she provides examples showing a justice system disproportionately punitive to people of color.
"Racism is baked into our legal system," she said. The stories she tells are rife with suspense, indignation, compassion and humor.
"I see the book as a 'primoir,' part primer and part memoir," Cordell said.
A graduate of Stanford Law School, Cordell lives in Palo Alto with her partner of 36 years. She has two daughters and five grandchildren. As she relates at the beginning of "Her Honor," she was approached in 1980 to consider accepting a judgeship in the municipal court, first handling small claims. She would go on to handle marriages, divorces, adoptions, juvenile cases and much more, gaining experience and laying the groundwork for the material that would become "Her Honor."
Cordell's career as a judge began with a case involving an unsatisfactory haircut and ended with a heartbreaking plea deal in which she was forced to hand down a mandatory 55 years-to-life sentence to a defendant who had turned his life around in prison. In "Her Honor," she recalls driving home after the sentencing: "Pulling into my driveway, I realized that I couldn't do this anymore. The 'Queen of Pleas' was done." Five months later, in 2001, she left the bench for good.
"Her Honor" also recounts some controversies Cordell spoke on following her time on the bench, including the publicized trial of Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, who was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman during a party on campus and given a 6-month sentence by Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky in 2016. Many were outraged by the perceived leniency, and Persky was removed from the bench during a recall election.
Cordell, however, publicly sided with Persky. As she explains in "Her Honor," Persky was appropriately following the probation department's recommendation for sentencing.
"My concern was about judicial independence," Cordell said. "When a judge makes a lawful decision, albeit a controversial one, that should never be a reason to remove a judge. Ever. (A judge must) follow the law. Even though what you're doing might not please everyone, follow the law."
At the end of "Her Honor," Cordell chooses 10 areas of the law ripe for improvement to enhance fairness and limit racial bias. She prescribes solutions for each.
For example, she recommends limiting judicial recalls to specific grounds of malfeasance. She urges the abolition of life sentences without possibility of parole for all juvenile offenders, and recommends mandated jury trials in felony prosecutions of juveniles. She would enact legislation to uncover racial bias in peremptory challenges, as well as end coercive plea bargains.
Despite encouragement from Rampersad and others, Cordell was so involved with public service that "Her Honor" took a while to complete. She served on the Palo Alto City Council from 2004 to 2008, during which time she raised the issue of opening Foothills Park to everyone, not just Palo Alto residents. (Threatened by a civil rights lawsuit initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2020, the Palo Alto City Council finally opened the park to everyone last December.) In 2015, Cordell completed a 5-year term as San Jose's Independent Police Auditor.
An active vocalist and pianist, Cordell is also co-founder of the African American Composer Initiative, which gives annual concerts benefiting Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto.
Music, she said, has kept her sane. "It's just been an integral part of my life. That's how I've kept it all going."
When she finally began writing in earnest, she developed routines to adapt to solitary writing life, Cordell said. "I spent mornings doing yoga and playing pickleball at Mitchell Park, then worked on the book from noon to 5 or 6 p.m. I adjusted quickly to the regimen because I was highly motivated to write this book."
Cordell said she is on "pins and needles" as she awaits the publication date of "Her Honor."
"There are controversial things in the book. That's good because I want to provoke thinking (about) what we can do to make this a better system for everyone," she said. "By better, I mean more just and more fair. And less racist."
LaDoris Cordell will speak about her new book "Her Honor: My Life on the Bench ... What Works, What's Broken and How to Change It" during three local book talk events:
• Oct. 26, 10-11 a.m.: Cordell will speak to radio host Mina Kim on KQED Forum, 88.5 FM.
• Oct. 27, 6 p.m.: Cordell will be in conversation with University of San Francisco Law Professor Lara Bazelon; commonwealthclub.org.
• Nov. 11, 7 p.m.: Cordell will speak at the Oshman JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto; paloaltojcc.org.