Two-thirds into her narrative, LaDoris Hazzard Cordell writes, “So, when I went off to law school, I knew that my path would lead to my being the defender of all things righteous.” By the end of her first year, there were hints that her path “might not be so clear cut.”
Cordell’s memoir, Her Honor: My Life on the Bench ... What Works, What’s Broken, and How to Change It, is a testimonial, unfeigned, simultaneously pragmatic and idealistic. It is the story of an overwhelmed law student questioning her own legitimacy who overcomes her insecurities and ascends to the bench, becoming the first African American woman judge in Northern California and retiring as a California Superior Court judge.
‘For she who would be loved, judging is a frustrating line of work; whenever a judge renders a decision, she is bound to make someone unhappy.’
Cordell, JD ’74, describes her first day on the bench: “I slipped on the robe . . . assumed an actor’s air of confidence, and stepped into the courtroom, determined to sit down and get through the hearing without looking like a complete fraud.” A later passage underscores the gravity of her position: “[J]udging is as much a test of one’s character and courage as it is a test of one’s command of the law.” Using examples from her actual cases, including those of a mental health patient who refused electroconvulsive therapy and a juvenile charged with murder after setting up a friend, Cordell offers an inside look at the justice system.
There is a rhythm to the book. It beats with the urgency of purpose. “I believe that judges are either activists for justice or black-robed do-nothings,” Cordell writes. She carried the mantle of the former, holding “a deep and abiding respect for judicial precedent,” while critics decried her as “the poster child for out-of-control judicial activism.” Now, no longer silenced by judicial canons, Cordell candidly criticizes the inequities of the system she was a part of for over 20 years, while acknowledging the role she played. She then offers 10 suggestions for legal system reform. Some are novel, some nuanced, and some are never going to happen. Still, they are delivered with the same earnestness as her own story.
Her Honor is not without comedy. A lifelong cartoonist, Cordell notes that her well-known legal system caricatures, including one featuring a former House Speaker, drew many admirers—and one anonymous complaint, filed with a judicial disciplinary agency. And it is not without controversy. The case of two young men charged with vandalizing a Black family’s home, including burning a cross on their lawn, gives her an opportunity to “keep an open mind when it was time to sentence them,” she writes, “their racist conduct notwithstanding.” Instead of sentencing them to jail, she orders them to take Third World Cultures, a local community college course, and then meet with her after they’ve passed it. She later notes that “judges, as do all of us, harbor conscious and unconscious bias,” and wonders of her decisions, “Did I do the right thing? I believe so; reasonable minds could differ.”
Thoughtful and thought-provoking, Cordell’s book is an appeal to serve with honor.
Herbrina Sanders, ’02, is a former federal prosecutor who currently sits as special master with the United States Court of Federal Claims. Email her at email@example.com.