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Joe Noriega

Joseph Noriega, who dropped out of school after the fifth grade to work in the farm fields, but then went back to school to become a lawyer -- and for five years a Kern County Superior Court judge -- died from cancer Tuesday at age 81.

There wasn't much typical about Noriega, who helped found one of Bakersfield's premier insurance defense firms, Clifford and Brown, and was known for great trial skills.

His five-year judgeship, for example, ended in 1980 amid some controversy, but it was his choice to return to practicing civil law, primarily as a plaintiff's personal injury lawyer.

Some attorneys back then complained of his impatience and temperament -- anonymously calling him Nitro Joe -- but he and his supporters said his insistence that attorneys come prepared, avoid delays and not approve lenient plea bargains was what ruffled feathers.

He was also an instrument-rated pilot, taking a Cessna 210 single-engine plane on work and family trips until 1985 when another attorney crashed the plane.

And in his personal life, he remained married for 52 years to his wife, Irma, whom he met in San Diego while he was still in law school.

A highlight of his career came in 1995 when the Kern County Bar Association gave him the Bench and Bar Award for his work ethic and dedication as a good example for the legal profession.

"I can think of very few honors that are more meaningful than one by your own colleagues and peers," he said then.

Born in Tucson, Ariz., he grew up on his father's cattle ranch in Mexico. After helping his family earn some money, he joined the U.S. Air Force to continue his education and improve his English.

His interest in law began in 1952 when he worked as an insurance adjuster and investigator in Los Angeles.

At 26, he qualified for law school through a college equivalence examination. He went to Southwestern University in 1955 and four years later graduated with honors. Earlier this year, the California Supreme Court and State Bar recognized his 50 years as a member of the State Bar.

He married in 1958, had a brief law career in Los Angeles and then brought the first two of his five children to Bakersfield in 1961.

In those days, he had a general business litigation practice specializing in representing doctors in malpractice cases. A firm he founded known as Noriega, Clifford, Jenkins and Brown evolved into Clifford and Brown.

Stephen Clifford remembered Noriega Wednesday "as the man who hired me right out of law school" and "that's where I am today. I considered him my mentor in every way possible. He was a superb lawyer who absolutely simplified complicated issues and got right to the point. He had a way of communicating with juries that was unrivaled. He got amazing results on very difficult cases."

In 1976, then Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him judge. Noriega, known for efficiency, instituted a jury pool system that is largely in place today. When a juror is excused from one case, he or she returns to the pool for possible reassignment to another case. Before, separate panels were called in for each case.

After resigning from the bench in late 1980, he returned to the practice of law, this time primarily as a plaintiff's attorney in personal injury cases.

In 1987, he brought his son, Robert, into the firm that is known as Noriega and Associates.

On Wednesday his son said of his father, "He was one of the finest lawyers I've ever seen. He was well prepared and he had a great vision for a case. He could see how it should and would come out at a very early stage in the process."

Another former partner from 1989 to 1996, Craig Edmonston recalled how Noriega used to tell juries, "I'm just an old country lawyer" and then would end up winning the case.

If an opposing lawyer would forget to file a pretrial motion to prevent Noriega from mentioning his prior experience as a judge, Noriega would mention it to a jury "giving him instant credibility," Edmonston said.

Noriega handled more than 200 civil trials and 30 criminal trials, his son said. The senior Noriega had a reputation for "truthfulness, integrity and trustworthiness," his son said.

His wife, too, thought highly of him, calling him "serious, trustworthy, loyal and loving. I knew I could count on him, and he loved his family."

Noriega pretty much stopped practicing law in the late 1990s, and instead continued his passion of playing golf at the Bakersfield Country Club where in his prime he played to a single-digit handicap, his son said.

In his last year, he battled prostate cancer that metastasized, his son said. He and his family very much appreciated Hoffman Hospice, his son said.

A funeral will be held at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 12 at St. Francis Catholic Church. The Rev. Monsignor Craig Harrison will officiate. Besides his son and wife, he is survived by his other children, Mary, John and James Noriega. A daughter, Lisa, died of a brain tumor in 1969 at the age of 7.