Clarence Westra Jr., remembered as a no-nonsense, highly capable judge who had little patience for unprepared attorneys, was found dead at his home in Nipomo on Friday, according to the San Luis Obispo County coroner's office. He was 71.
Westra, who retired from Kern County Superior Court in 2008, is believed to have died from natural causes, the coroner's office said.
Prosecutor John Mitchell, who became close friends with Westra upon joining the Kern County District Attorney's office in 1982, said Westra was a "brilliant" attorney.
"He was the best trial lawyer I ever saw, and I've seen a bunch," Mitchell said.
When Mitchell joined the D.A.'s office, Westra had already been there a decade and was handling high-profile murder cases. Mitchell was handling lower-level cases and learning the ropes.
One day, Westra walked by Mitchell's office and noticed a Cal football poster on the wall. Having attended UC Berkeley himself, the two began talking football.
Westra became a mentor to Mitchell, teaching him how to become a trial lawyer. Mitchell said he sat in on Westra's trials to see how he handled witnesses and defense attorneys and dealt with the different facets of the courtroom experience.
Westra's level of preparation was unparalleled, Mitchell said. Anyone who entered his office would see photographs and witness statements spread across his desk.
"He would be in the office at 11 p.m. or midnight, and would come in on weekends working on cases," Mitchell said.
Mitchell recalled that former District Attorney Ed Jagels, upon taking office, assigned Westra to preliminary hearings. Westra had a murder trial that was about to start, and now didn't have the time necessary to prepare for it.
So he got creative: He took two weeks of vacation, took the case file with him, and spent the entire two weeks preparing for the trial. He wasn't going to enter the courtroom unprepared, Mitchell said.
Westra also possessed the ability to talk to anyone, Mitchell said. It didn't matter what walk of life a witness came from: businessman, prostitute, police officer, drug addict. Westra could converse with all of them.
In addition to teaching him how to be a trial lawyer, Westra also taught Mitchell to be a Christian prosecutor, Mitchell said. The two men bonded over their shared faith, and Westra reminded Mitchell that sometimes things don't go the way they want them to.
Mitchell said on one occasion he was griping about some perceived miscarriage of justice, and Westra told him, "John, you're Christian. This is not God's justice, this is man's justice. Until we see heaven, we won't see God's justice. This is as close as we're going to get to it here."
That statement was typical of Westra, Mitchell said. He wasn't someone who separated his faith on Sundays from the way he acted the rest of the week.
"He was a great friend and I'm going to miss him," Mitchell said. "I'm flat-out going to miss him."
Michael C. Lukehart, a veteran defense attorney who tried a number of cases before Westra, called him an "outstanding" judge.
"He went through things very carefully," Lukehart said Tuesday. "If you cited a case to him, you had better have read it, because he would have."
Lukehart said Westra was a "good, careful," judge who always allowed him to make an accurate record in the courtroom, even when he disagreed with him.
Westra had a calm demeanor. It was easy to tell when he got angry, Lukehart said, because he became very quiet.
"He had very little tolerance for unprepared lawyers," Lukehart said. "I liked that a lot."
Kern County Assistant District Attorney Scott Spielman said Westra was very intelligent, his rulings were very well thought out, and he articulated them well.
"He thought it through and researched it and gave very good reasons for why he decided the way that he did," Spielman said.
Later in his career, Westra was publicly admonished by the state Commission on Judicial Performance for being discourteous to court staff after numerous private rebukes for similar behavior.
While not speaking to the specific incidents resulting in the admonishment, Spielman said Westra took the job seriously and expected others to perform at a high standard.
"When people did things he disliked or were unprepared, he was not slow to react," Spielman said.
The 2007 admonishment was issued in connection with two incidents that occurred in 2006 and 2001.
In the 2006 incident, Westra ordered a bailiff, who had been sworn to guard a deliberating jury, to remain in court even though the deputy had to go to training and the deputy told the judge about it ahead of time. The deputy's supervisor, Shelly Castaneda, then a commander in the Kern County Sheriff's Office, went to talk with the judge.
The judge yelled at Castaneda, telling her, "You are not going to tell me how to run my courtroom," when she asked if he had a written policy, according to the commission's report. He ordered her to leave his chambers.
In the 2001 incident, Westra said "the Keystone Cops could have handled it better" when a bailiff left the courtroom against his policy while a defendant was testifying in his own trial.
The commission noted in its report that Westra "has been the subject of extensive prior discipline," including five advisory letters dating back to 1988.
Advisory letters are lesser punishment for inappropriate behavior and are not made public.
Lukehart said he believes the admonishment was "totally overblown," and that the public received a very biased view of what happened.
Mitchell said the same skills that made Westra a brilliant trial lawyer sometimes made him a "cranky" judge. But he could be very patient with younger people, those who were still at the beginning of their legal career and were learning, Mitchell said.
Born in Los Angeles on Aug. 13, 1945, to Klaas Reinder "Clarence" Westra and Helen Bouma, Westra was the youngest of five children. He grew up on a dairy farm in Ripon, and played basketball at Ripon Christian High School.
Westra graduated from law school at UC Davis in 1971, and worked as a deputy district attorney in Kern County from 1972 to 1983. He was appointed a judge in 1983.