BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Esteemed for his almost encyclopedic knowledge of the law and well-known for his expectation that attorneys come prepared to his courtroom or face a rebuke, Judge John S. Somers retired earlier this month after presiding over more than 400 trials during a dozen years on the bench.
Somers, 61, served in family law, general trial courts and habeas corpus writs. He spent 2015-16 as presiding judge.
Others who practice the law often sought Somers out for his thoughts on thorny legal issues, as he had established a reputation for his ability to extensively cite case law from memory and quickly point to pertinent sections of the Evidence Code.
“The Kern County Superior Court will miss Judge Somers’ experience, wisdom and camaraderie, but we wish him and his family well in a well-deserved retirement,” said a message from court officials.
Before his judicial appointment in 2008, Somers spent 23 years with the Kern County District Attorney’s office, most of that time spent prosecuting homicide, sexual assault and child sexual abuse cases. He completed about 170 trials, including 11 special circumstances cases that resulted in four death verdicts.
As a judge, he presided over 463 trials, according to court records.
Defense lawyer Kyle J. Humphrey, who was employed with the DA’s office early in his career, said he saw Somers as almost an older brother back then, someone he could go to for advice and tips on how to handle big legal issues. He described Somers as quiet, intelligent and dedicated.
“He was always one of the brightest guys, and as honest as you could hope for,” Humphrey said.
They had run-ins at times after Somers became a judge, but Humphrey said Somers was always fair and — even though Humphrey said he hates to admit it — mostly right. He enjoyed having trials in front of Somers because of his extensive knowledge of the law and his standing firm in the cause of justice.
“I will miss him on the bench even if just to catch his eye when he finds something amiss in his courtroom, to see his self-deprecating smile and to see him allow the rest of us to make mistakes he rarely made,” Humphrey said. “The legal community is saying goodbye to a good one, and I know his colleagues will have to carry more weight to make up for his hard work.”
Assistant Public Defender Peter Kang said Somers is irreplaceable, leaving behind an impeccable reputation for consistent legal scholarship and integrity.
“His public service was nothing less than a solid commitment to hard work, principle and courage,” Kang said. “He never shied away from difficult cases.”
Kang said he appeared before Somers on multiple high-profile trials, including the first Hells Angels murder case prosecuted in Kern County. That trial involved a heightened level of security — including extra deputies stationed at the courtroom entrance as well as a second metal detector — never before seen in the county, he said.
Kang’s client, Michael Henry Pena, was acquitted of all charges.
Another notable case Kang had before Somers was the trial of Travis Frazier and Kenneth Nowlin, prison inmates in Tehachapi charged with murder in the stabbing death of another inmate. Both men were convicted and sentenced to death.
District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer said she had the pleasure of working alongside Somers at the DA’s office for more than 20 years.
“John was a fierce, dedicated and effective prosecutor and one of the hardest-working people I have ever served with,” she said. “On a personal level, John has always shown compassion and grace as a husband and father. As a jurist, John Somers has been amongst Kern County’s greatest judges.”
Zimmer said Somers’ contribution to the legal community as a prosecutor and judge will be appreciated long after his retirement.
Despite his at times forbidding demeanor, Somers had a sense of humor to go along with his efficiency and knowledge, said defense attorney David A. Torres.
“I think his single flaw was being a St. Louis Cardinals fan in Dodgers country, but that can be overlooked” Torres said.
He said Somers will be sorely missed.
Defense attorney H.A. Sala recalled trying a case against Somers when he was a deputy district attorney.
“I was impressed with his trial preparation, tenacity and command of the Evidence Code,” Sala said. “On a homicide case, he fairly and ethically evaluated the evidence, which led to a just and equitable settlement.”
Somers always listened and followed the rules of evidence to reach the appropriate legal decision, Sala said. He expected attorneys to be ready and respond succinctly to his questions.
If they showed up unprepared, Somers had no qualms in expressing his displeasure.
“Although he was often stern on the bench, he was not swayed by passion, prejudice or bias,” Sala said. “He followed the law objectively and fairly.”