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Former judge stars in TV show

by Sari Staver

Retired Judge LaDoris Cordell. Photo: Fox
Retired Judge LaDoris Cordell. Photo: Fox  

Following an impressive 40-year career in the courtroom as an attorney and judge, LaDoris Cordell is making her Hollywood debut.

Last Friday night, April 7, Cordell starred as the judge in the premier of "You the Jury," a new primetime unscripted reality show where viewers decide the verdict.

The series was taped on a TV courtroom set in front of about 300 audience members.

The eight-episode series, which was taped in Hollywood, features a rogues gallery of high-profile defense lawyers trying civil cases. At the end of each episode, viewers vote on the verdict in real time, via text message or an app.

The show aims to tackle topical issues like gay rights, wrongful death, online trolling, and free speech.

During the first program, the audience voted to convict Gary Giordano of civil culpability in the death of his wife, Robyn, who disappeared in Aruba five years ago. Celebrity attorney Joseph Tacopina represented Giordano.

Cordell is a fan of the program's approach to courtroom drama.

"First of all," said Cordell in a telephone interview with the Bay Area Reporter, "I want to emphasize that this is not on the Fox News Channel," the notorious right-wing cable network. "That's the first thing everyone says to me. Ewww ... you're on Fox?" she recalled.

Fox Broadcasting Company, whose local affiliate KTVU broadcasts the show, is a separate division within the 21st Century Fox conglomerate.

But the show is hosted by a Fox News Channel regular, Jeanine Pirro, a former judge who gained notoriety in late March when she called on House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) to step down, hours after President Donald Trump plugged her show in one of his infamous tweets.

Cordell, when asked about her dealings with Pirro, said diplomatically, "We got along very well on the set."

Cordell, 67, lives in Palo Alto with her longtime partner, Florence Keller. The two, who've been together for over 30 years, met in court when Keller was looking for a judge to refer people to a therapy group she was establishing for women convicted of stealing.

When asked their marital status, Cordell responded, "We already did that," referring to previous marriages to men, where each woman had two children and, subsequently, five grandchildren.

Her Hollywood gig began in 2015, when Cordell, just settling into retirement, got an unexpected email from a talent agency, claiming it was looking for candidates to star in an upcoming television show.

After skimming the email, Cordell said she "was ready to delete it immediately," unsure if it was legitimate and, if it was, whether she was even interested.

But Keller encouraged her to follow up. "It could be an interesting opportunity," Cordell recalled Keller saying. "Now that you're retired, you have time" for projects that wouldn't have been possible while she was working.

During a lengthy series of back and forth emails, Cordell learned that the program producers were looking for someone seasoned and who could control the courtroom. Cordell said she thought, "I can do that."

During the final interview, which was supposed to last 20 minutes but ran more than an hour and a half, Cordell was asked "why she should be the judge" on the new program.

She responded, "Because I have white teeth and good posture," but then broached what she feared might be a deal killer.

"You need to know that I'm gay," Cordell told the interviewer.

Cordell recalled he responded, "That's great," surprising her.

"Just five or 10 years ago, being gay might've been an issue," she said.

Several months later, when Cordell learned she was offered the job â€" over 19 other competing judges â€" she needed to think about it.

She spoke with the show's producers "to make sure they weren't doing anything silly," she explained. Once reassured, Cordell hired an entertainment attorney to negotiate her contract, and things got rolling.

Cordell also pointed out that, unlike other courtroom TV programs, this one goes "well beyond" small claims cases.

Cordell said she liked the producers' approach to using "real cases" that illustrated some of the current hot button issues in society. "Not that landlord tenant cases" and other similar disputes common on other courtroom reality shows "aren't important too, but that's not what this is all about."

At the very least, said Cordell, she hopes viewers "will get involved" with the judicial process.

"Next time they are called to jury duty, I'm hoping they may be more likely to want to serve," she said.

The producers selected the cases from those already in court, with the parties agreeing to fire their previous attorneys and accept the litigators provided by the program.


Used to TV

Television appearances are nothing new for Cordell, who has been interviewed on dozens of different topics following her election to Superior Court in 1988, when she became the first female African-American judge in northern California and the first female African-American judge in Santa Clara County. (She was appointed to what was then known as municipal court by then-Governor Jerry Brown in 1982.)

Cordell gained national prominence in 2010 when she was appointed to a five-year term as the independent police auditor for the city of San Jose. She served as chair of the blue ribbon commission that reviewed the conditions in the jails in Santa Clara County, and was a member of the blue ribbon panel that reviewed operations of the San Francisco Police Department.

Cordell also chaired a task force on racial discrimination at San Jose State University, following a racial bullying incident involving an African-American student.

Given these high-profile appointments, Cordell was a natural for reporters and media producers looking for an articulate spokeswoman for comments about law enforcement, incarceration, and racial discrimination, leading to appearances as an on-camera legal analyst for CBS.

Cordell has been a repeat guest at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club events (three times in the past year alone) and has also interviewed public figures before live audiences, including rapper Talib Kweli, reality TV star Kim Kardashian, New York Times columnist David Brooks, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, lesbian tennis star Billie Jean King, and Professor Anita Hill.

Following her 1974 graduation from Stanford Law School, Cordell became the first lawyer to open a practice in poverty-ridden East Palo Alto. In 1978, she was appointed assistant dean for student affairs at Stanford Law School, where she implemented a successful minority admissions program.

After 19 years on the bench, Cordell worked at Stanford University as vice provost and special counselor to the president for campus relations. In 2004, she ran a successful grassroots campaign (without accepting any monetary donations) for a four-year term on the Palo Alto City Council.

The future of "You the Jury" depends on ratings, Cordell acknowledged. A spokesperson for Fox Broadcasting Company told the B.A.R. that the estimates for the first program would not be available until after press time.

"Of course I'm hoping for the best," said Cordell.

Whatever happens, she said, "It's been a lot of fun" to be a part of the series.

When the first episode aired last Friday, she and Keller were invited to a viewing party at the home of her "longtime friend and mentor" senior U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson, at his home in the East Bay.

At the end of the show, "Florence presented me with a faux Emmy Award, which is now next to our TV at home."

Cordell, a theatre major in college, said she "never imagined anything like this" would be part of her career.

"But," she said, "it did and who knows where it might lead next?"




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