This summer, Kern County lost an exquisite lawyer and a truly decent man. Joe Noriega battled cancer for a year, and died on August 3, 2010. I had the good fortune to work with Joe over the better part of two decades.
For some, Joe Noriega’s name may be only vaguely familiar. If you ran up against Joe for the first time as an adversary, there were a couple things you would want to know. Joe Noriega did not blow his own horn. Joe Noriega looked well beyond the surface of things and knew what he was doing. Twenty years ago, I did not know Joe Noriega.
I scheduled his client’s deposition. He arrived early. I called him “Joe,” using his first name as I would any opposing attorney to whom I conceded nothing. After all, I had taken more than a few depositions. I had no idea Joe Noriega was a former Superior Court judge, or an ABOTA Diplomate with more than 200 jury trials to his credit. He said nothing to educate me. That was Joe.
When the deposition started, I don’t think I asked much more than, “Would you state your name, please?” when Joe started objecting. A question – an objection. (Who was this guy?) I could get no traction with the witness in the midst of Joe’s objection sortie. When finally my patience was fully stretched, I turned my full attention to Joe Noriega. Joe remained calm and wholly unimpressed by my lecture on which objections were appropriate in a deposition, and my recitation of the Code. I was getting nowhere, so I held up my deposition outline revealing several pages of notes and said, “Joe, I’ve got a lot of questions here; I don’t care how many DAYS it takes me to get through this.” And I meant it. Days. Weeks!!! I was going to ask ALL my questions.
It is only speculation now, but I think Joe Noriega discerned—for whatever reason—that the young attorney with whom he was dealing was perhaps a little stubborn, and indeed might be serious about taking a deposition for DAYS. The objections subsided with only a few eventful interludes as I consumed most of the day finishing the deposition. I learned to my embarrassment later that evening all about the credentials of the seasoned lawyer I had just lectured. I was certain Joe Noriega had little regard for me, if he regarded me at all. Several days later, Joe called and offered me a job. That was also Joe.
Joe Noriega’s life story is the embodiment of “self-made,” and he was no stranger to trials. He dropped out of school in fifth grade and essentially tested out of college to attend law school. The Noriegas lost a daughter when she was young. Joe battled and beat cancer in the early 1990’s. He watched his wife, Irma—one of the nicest people I know—suffer and slowly recover from a serious injury. He was respected and admired.
Steve Clifford addressed Joe’s family and the large crowd in attendance when the KCBA awarded Joe Noriega the “Bench & Bar Award” in 1995. Joe’s friendship with “Clifford” (as Joe sometimes called him) dated back to the 1960’s, right after Steve finished law school. Steve remembers Joe as “compassionate,” and “just a great human being.” Steve recently said of Joe, “He knew how to relate to people,” and was “naturally intuitive,” and Steve believes that “it was through his life experience that Joe acquired great skills with people that made him effective as a trial lawyer.”
If there was something negative to say about Joe Noriega’s client, Joe was the first to bring it up. When there were adverse facts, Joe was the first to discuss them. He diffused problems, and explained complicated concepts with elegant simplicity.
When Joe was diagnosed with his first cancer years ago, I think Joe sensed the cloud that hung over our law firm. He called an office meeting to tell us what was happening. He was upbeat, and he continued to work even though the treatment ran him down. Eventually, he got better. In due time, Joe was again walking through the office snapping his fingers, which his son, Rob Noriega, has described as the equivalent of his dad doing cartwheels.
Joe Noriega loved his family and friends, and he loved being a lawyer. He gave young lawyers a chance, and trusted them to do a good job. What would Joe Noriega say to a young lawyer? Joe would say, “It’s not all about books and cases,” according to Steve Clifford.
This spring, Joe pulled the plug on his own medical treatment. Early this summer, Rob Noriega arranged a lunch for his dad and the two of us. Joe was in a wheelchair. He was also in pain, but in typical Joe fashion, we talked mostly about things other than him. When I was finally able to ask how he was doing, Joe was painfully truthful: “Well, I’m not going to get any better.” That was Joe. But right after saying that, he smiled and, if only momentarily, he had that once familiar spark and upbeat spirit: “But you know,” he said, “I’m looking forward to seeing what’s on the other side.”
When we left the restaurant, Rob got the car as I stood on the sidewalk with Joe in his wheelchair. I believe we both understood it might be our last opportunity to talk. I did not know what to say. In the awkward moment, Joe struggled to push himself up and turned to face me. Joe hugged me and said he loved me. That was Joe.
I will miss Joe Noriega.
by Eric Bradshaw
This article was originally published in the October 2010 edition of the Res Ipsa Loquitur.
The Bakersfield Californian story on Joe Noriega's death can be found here.