Something about the applicant intrigued Thelton Henderson, then the assistant dean at Stanford Law School charged with recruiting minority students. Twenty years old and a drama major, LaDoris Cordell was a self-taught visual artist, karate expert, skilled tennis player, and accomplished composer. Her great-grandmother had been a slave; her mother didn’t have a birth certificate because Black mothers were barred from hospital maternity wards. A career in law, she wrote, would enable her to fight injustices.
There was just one hitch. The year was 1971 and admitting her would mean overlooking a key Stanford requirement. Her liberal arts school, Antioch College in Ohio, didn’t issue letter grades—only teacher evaluations. To Henderson’s knowledge, Stanford Law School had never accepted a student without a traditional college transcript.
He made an exception. “Best decision I think I ever made,” says Henderson, who later became a key figure in civil rights cases as a federal judge based in San Francisco.
For Cordell, JD ’74, it was the beginning of many firsts in a remarkable—and, at times, controversial—47-year career as a private lawyer, judge, independent police auditor, city council member, civil rights consultant, and LGBT rights advocate.
In 1982, Cordell broke ground when she became the first female Black judge in Northern California state court. She was the first judge in the state to order convicted drunk drivers to install breathalyzers in their vehicles. She pioneered a highly acclaimed supervised visitation program in child custody cases that has since been adopted around the country. She was the architect of the first law school clinical program on judging.
Cordell made her mark at Stanford too. As Stanford Law School’s assistant dean for student affairs from 1978 until 1982, she enrolled more Black and Hispanic students than any top law school in the country, according to a Stanford News Service report. She came back to campus in 2001 with her appointment as vice provost and special counselor to the president for campus relations, overseeing diversity and anti-discrimination measures across the university until 2009.
Now, Cordell has written a candid and incisive memoir about her 19 years as a judge in Santa Clara County. Due out in the fall, Her Honor: My Life on the Bench…What Works, What’s Broken, and How to Change It… richly details her 1982 appointment to what was then known as the Municipal Court and then, in 1988, her election to the Superior Court, following a contentious race. Cordell delves into cases she presided over—from juvenile court to estate battles to divorce proceedings to criminal sentencing to judicial misconduct—where the issues are still relevant today. She describes the frequent double-takes when people who appeared before her discovered she was Black, and her willingness, after retiring from the bench, to take unpopular positions when issues of fairness are at stake. This includes her contentious defense of Aaron Persky (BA ’84, MA ’85), a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge who was recalled in 2018 over his sentencing of Brock Turner, the former Stanford swimmer convicted of sexual assault. But as a judge, her activism was, by necessity, passive. After California enacted its harsh three-strikes sentencing law in 1994, she earned a reputation for her willingness to consider striking prior convictions, which reduced the jail time a criminal defendant was facing. Ultimately, she says, it was a three-strikes case that led her to retire from the bench. Cordell writes that, like other critics, she considered the law to be California’s version of apartheid.
“I was a beacon for change, or a menace to the well-being of the court,” writes Cordell of her reputation as a judge. “I was a staunch fighter for greater legal access for the poor and increased efficiency of the judicial system or the poster child for out-of-control judicial activism.” Her meticulous recollections would not have been possible, she says, but for the hundreds of weekly letters she wrote to her parents during her time on the bench.
Martin Jenkins, an associate justice of the Supreme Court of California, says Cordell has simply been ahead of her time on many social issues. “Long before there was any such thing as implicit bias, she was raising awareness around access and fairness,” says Jenkins, who took a judicial training course taught by Cordell in the early 1990s that was novel at the time for its focus on racism in the judiciary. “She pioneered what is now the gold standard in judicial education with her access and fairness course—the precursor to today’s implicit bias courses.” He also notes that she correctly predicted that California’s three-strikes law would lead to the mass incarceration of people of color. “She was prescient about so many issues now at the heart of criminal justice reform today,” says Jenkins.
She was also right about something deeply personal to Jenkins: His decision to come out publicly last year, making him the first openly gay justice on California’s highest court. For at least 10 years, he spoke with Cordell and her longtime partner, Florence Keller, about his reluctance to disclose his sexuality. “By talking with her and watching how she walked in the world, she helped me understand the importance of discerning who I am as my authentic self,” Jenkins says.
“Long before there was any such thing as implicit bias, she was raising awareness around access and fairness.”
—Martin Jenkins, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of California
Since leaving the court, Cordell hasn’t slowed down. In addition to her role as Stanford vice provost, she also sat for four years on the Palo Alto City Council and, from 2010 until 2015, spent five years as San Jose’s independent police auditor. She retired, she says, to focus on music and a labor of love: promoting the works of Black composers through the African American Composer Initiative, which she co-founded in 2014. When Black Lives Matter protests erupted last summer, she delivered impromptu speeches at local rallies and has been unrelenting in her support for radical police reforms. To Cordell, who continues to consult for cities and also colleges on police reforms, some local governments aren’t as interested in police responsibility as they are in minimizing their legal liability.
Her unwavering commitment to social justice, at the age of 71, doesn’t surprise Keller. On the wall of their Bay Area home is a quote attributed to the novelist and poet Alice Walker: “Activism is my rent for living on this planet.”
“That absolutely defines LaDoris,” says Keller. “She has to be doing something to make the world a better place. It’s rooted in her soul, her being.”SL
Krysten Crawford is a former senior producer at CNNMoney.com and Fortune.com.