Retired California Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell is already a Bay Area legal celebrity. She was the first black woman judge on any court in Northern California when Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her to the Municipal Court in 1982. When Cordell won an open election to a seat on the Superior Court in 1988, she became the first black judge on the Superior Court in Santa Clara County.
Now Cordell is going national, as the presiding judge on You the Jury, a court reality drama premiering Friday, Apr. 7 on Fox TV. The show delivers real civil trials, with the added frisson of viewers getting to serve as jurors and deciding the cases.
"Believe me, it was the last thing I would ever think of," Cordell says. "Even now, I see the commercial on the TV and I think 'Is this for real? This is for real!'"
Cordell had initial misgivings about participating in the project. "I worked so long and hard to establish a solid reputation, I didn't want to get involved in anything stupid or silly," she says. But after talking with the show's producers, Cordell felt assured they wanted someone with serious credentials to preside over an orderly courtroom, even if it's on a Hollywood sound stage with a live audience.
Cordell isn't the only "real" legal eagle in You the Jury. The prosecutors and defenders are high-profile attorneys like Jose Baez, who defended Casey Anthony, a Florida woman who was accused of killing her two-year-old daughter in 2008, and Benjamin Crump, who represented the family of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin.
Here's the first episode, involving civil culpability for the alleged murder of Robyn Gardner:
Fox taped eight weekly episodes with Cordell last year. In each, the team edited down an eight-hour trial to fit into a one-hour show. "The lawyers were so well prepared. They're sharp," Cordell says, acknowledging that wasn't always the case during her time on the bench.
It's Cordell's job to keep things moving along, instruct the audience/jury, and announce the verdict on live TV. "Whatever viewing America votes, that's going to be it, the verdict, in real cases," Cordell says.
Viewers weigh in, American Idol-style, via text or the Fox Now app, for around five minutes after the episode ends in their respective time zones. Fox taped two endings for each segment. Conceivably, a decision rendered on the East Coast could be overturned three hours later on the West Coast. But whatever happens, the decisions are legally binding.
Cordell, 67, left her seat on the Superior Court bench after almost 19 years. That was in February 2001. "I got very bored sometimes, sitting in court," Cordell says of her years on the bench. This was especially true, she says, when the cases were about mundane issues.
Involving free speech, gay rights, religious freedom, and wrongful death, the cases on You the Jury promise to hold the judge's full attention. "These are grander issues," Cordell says. "They're not clear cut, which is what makes the show so interesting."
Cordell has taken on some high-profile roles in recent years, legally speaking. She led a three-judge panel on racism at the San Francisco Police Department and recently finished chairing a commission that evaluated the jails in Santa Clara County after an inmate was allegedly beaten to death by guards.
She's also a huge fan of the televised legal drama genre. "I love it!" she says. Her favorites include Law & Order -- "I watch the reruns all the time" -- and The Good Wife.
But when an independent talent search company contacted her via email about being on TV herself, Cordell had serious doubts. It was her partner who urged her to hit reply.
She was impressed with the initial conversation she had with the talent firm. "I need to tell you I'm gay," Cordell says she told her interviewer. "And he said, 'That's great!' Five, ten years ago, it would have been a deal killer. It's amazing how things have changed."
The interviewer also asked Cordell why she should be the judge on You the Jury. "Because my teeth are white, and I have good posture," she replied. As the saying goes, case closed.
'You the Jury,' presided over by LaDoris Cordell, premieres at 9 p.m. Friday, Ap. 7, 2017 on Fox TV. More information here.