Judge Cordell on Case That Pushed Her to Retire: 'My Tenure on the Bench Was a Conflicted One'

PEOPLE’s Voices from the Fight Against Racism will amplify perspectives on the push for equality and justice

Judge Cordell
Judge Cordell. Photo: Laurie Naiman

Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell knows about making an impact. She was the first Black woman jurist in Northern California — and continues to fight for justice outside of the courtroom. In her upcoming memoir, Her Honor, Cordell revisits her almost two decades on the bench. The result is an "insider account" of the U.S. legal system, which Cordell argues continues to serve an important purpose even if parts are "broken." In her book, the judge shows how plea bargains help keep flooded courtrooms working and the "racial biases" that are threaded throughout the court system. Plus, she reflects on the moving and heartbreaking family cases she's overseen. "I would preside over thousands of cases and come to learn that judging is not for the faint of heart," Cordell, 71, writes in the book's introduction. In an essay for PEOPLE, Cordell — now a legal commentator and police reform advocate who has won multiple awards for her public service — revisits the case that made her walk away from the bench forever.

It was Sept. 7, 2000 when Leo Hill stood before me to be sentenced with a deputy public defender by his side. Mr. Hill, a 44-year-old African American, was facing 55 years to life under California's draconian, and more than a little racist, three-strikes law that, starting in the mid-1990s, was responsible for the mass incarceration of people of color.

In 1982, I had been appointed to the bench by then California Gov. Jerry Brown, making me the first African American female judge in Northern California. The bench on which I sat, in the heart of Silicon Valley, had been devoid of Black judges of any gender for more than two decades. The tenure of the first Black judge on our court, an African American man, had been short-lived. After just two years on the bench, he was convicted of conspiracy to commit arson and obstruction of justice. In the ensuing 20 years, there existed a drought of Blackness on our court, until my arrival.

Judge Cordell
Celadon Books)

There is no apprenticeship for a new judge. Judging is learned by doing; it is on-the-job training. One day you're a lawyer who may never have set foot in a courtroom, and the next day you are a judge in charge of a courtroom, making life-altering decisions. When, at the age of 32, I began my career as a trial judge, I was untrained, untutored and terrified.

Now, nearly 20 years later, with thousands of cases behind me, I was to sentence Leo Hill. Under the three-strikes law, anyone convicted of two prior serious or violent felonies, followed by conviction of another felony, even if the felony were non-serious or victimless, like drug possession or theft, must serve a minimum of 25 years to life in prison. Two decades earlier, Mr. Hill had been convicted of involuntary manslaughter after stabbing a woman during an alcohol-infused altercation (his first strike) and injuring another (his second strike). After serving time in prison for those offenses, he remained crime-free for 17 years until, in a drunken rage, he punched a woman (strike three). Hopeful that I would dismiss one of his prior strikes, which would take a life sentence off the table, Mr. Hill pled guilty to his third strike in my courtroom.

My tenure on the bench was a conflicted one. By simply donning my robe, I knew that I lent legitimacy to a system that disproportionately targeted people of color. Most of the criminal cases over which I presided involved defendants who looked like me. My presence on the bench gave defendants of color hope that they would be seen not as a bunch of gangbangers, thugs and drug addicts but as a human beings; and it would allow for the possibility that many were better than the worst crimes they committed. It was no coincidence that defendants of color wanted to appear before me, the only Black judge among a sea of white jurists in a criminal court system overflowing with African American and Latinx defendants. The power of the racial connection is enormous; it's also an enormous burden.

RELATED VIDEO: Daniel Dae Kim on Fighting For Justice: 'I'm Hoping We'll Move ... Towards a Place of Progress'

To his credit, during the nearly two years that he had been held in the jail pending his sentencing, Mr. Hill had been a model prisoner. He obtained his G.E.D., and successfully completed every educational and rehabilitation program that the jail had to offer (anger management, alcohol and drug recovery). And while he had found God, a common discovery among inmates, there was the possibility that Mr. Hill had, in fact, undergone a genuine transformation. The problem was that the law did not give me the discretion to do anything. Only the prosecutor had the authority to dismiss one of his strikes, and she chose not to.

Minutes before the sentencing hearing, I met in my chambers with the prosecutor and Mr. Hill's attorney one last time. I reiterated that considering Mr. Hill's positive work over the preceding two years, the 55-year to life sentence demanded by the DA was egregiously disproportionate to his crime, and that a sentence of say, 20 years, was more appropriate. The prosecutor disagreed and refused to budge.

When I entered the courtroom, Mr. Hill was handcuffed at the counsel table next to his public defender. I took my seat at the bench and said, "I have asked, and the prosecutor has declined, to reduce or dismiss either of his current charges. I respectfully and strongly disagree with the prosecutor's position. But, as long as I wear this robe, I am required to abide by my oath of office to faithfully uphold and apply the law even when that application is not to my liking. I, therefore, reluctantly impose upon Mr. Hill the sentence required by law." Leo Hill will be eligible for release in 2037, when he is 83 years old.

Not long thereafter, I retired from the bench.

Related Articles