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Judicial Profile: James E. Simmons Jr.

By: Tina Wang, FBA member and Judge Simmons' law clerk


A portrait of Judge James E. Simmons Jr., United States District Judge for the Southern District of California.
Judge James E. Simmons Jr.

Introduction

Judge James E. Simmons Jr., the newest district judge in the Southern District of California, was confirmed to the bench on March 9, 2023. A life-long Californian, Judge Simmons has dedicated his life to public service, and his addition to the Federal Bench follows a distinguished legal career.


Judge Simmons held his investiture in July of 2023, and the room was packed. On the left, full of his family and personal friends. Many family members had driven down from Los Angeles that Friday afternoon, through four-plus hours of traffic, to be there for Judge Simmons and then to turn around and drive hours to get home that same evening. Their willingness to make the journey just to share this celebration with Judge Simmons speaks volumes about how close-knit and important family is to the judge. On the right, a diverse representation of the legal community in San Diego. Federal judges, state court judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, private practitioners—all coming together despite being on different sides of the table in their day to day lives—again to celebrate Judge Simmons. The room represented a defining quality that helped elevate Judge Simmons to the bench—his ability to get along with everyone and bring them together.


Early Life

Judge Simmons grew up in South Central Los Angeles, in a household with his mother and three older sisters. His mother was a single mom, who worked in the cafeteria at his elementary school. His upbringing has had a tremendous influence in shaping who he is. Watching his mother work relentlessly to support himself and his sisters instilled in Judge Simmons a strong work ethic. And the strong female presence in his household taught him how to treat others—to always be respectful and kind. In fact, when Judge Simmons got in trouble at school—he was a bit of a jokester growing up—he was not sent to the principal’s office but straight to his mother in the cafeteria. It was a much more effective consequence.

 

Judge Simmons attended public schools growing up and spent a lot of time outside playing sports, mostly basketball, a sport that he is still very involved with. During high school came the biggest influence in shaping Judge Simmons’ career. He recalls watching the infamous O.J. Simpson trial on television with Johnnie Cochran as lead counsel and thinking that he had never seen a lawyer before that who looked like him. Watching Cochran in action at trial inspired him to study law and be a trial attorney.

 

Judge Simmons carried that goal with him as he attended University of California at Berkeley, where he double-majored in Political Science and African American Studies. There, he also met his wife, who would also go to law school and become a lawyer.

 

After finishing his undergraduate studies, Judge Simmons and his wife both attended law school in the Bay Area. Tragically, on Judge Simmons’ first day of law school, he received a call that his mother was in the hospital and was not expected to survive. He immediately flew home to Los Angeles to see his mother, and she died shortly after his arrival. He almost did not return to law school, but his family encouraged him to continue and to not give up. He returned to law school, only to face further challenges of having missed the first two weeks of school and still struggling through the loss of his mother.

 

But true to form, Judge Simmons persevered and went on to excel during law school. He never wavered from his desire to become a trial attorney. During school, he was part of the mock trial team that competed nationally and took him all over the country for competitions. During his first law school summer, thinking he was interested in criminal defense work, he worked at the California Appellate Project. He spent his second summer at the Alameda District Attorney’s Office—it was there that he realized that he could actually effect more change as a prosecutor.


Early Legal Career

After law school, Judge Simmons and his wife moved to San Diego, where he would start his legal career as a Deputy City Attorney in the criminal division prosecuting misdemeanor offenses. In one year, he tried 21 misdemeanor jury trials.

 

Judge Simmons then moved to the District Attorney’s office, where he would spend the next twelve years of his career. Judge Simmons started in the Vista office, where he tried 18 more misdemeanor jury trials and one felony jury trial. He then moved into the juvenile division, where he handled his first murder case. Next, he moved into the superior court division, where he would try over 20 jury trials in a year and a half.

 

He finally moved to the gang prosecution unit, where he would spend the remainder of his time with the DA’s office. His first case in the gang unit was a multi-defendant homicide, where he had to quickly learn how to work with a grand jury, conduct a wiretap investigation, and handle confidential informants. Ultimately the case culminated in a three-month long trial. Judge Simmons was the sole prosecutor on the case. It was also during this trial that Judge Simmons suffered another personal tragedy—the loss of his oldest sister in the middle of trial. After a one-day break in the trial to attend her funeral, Judge Simmons was back at trial soon after and secured convictions across the board. He continued to try over 20 cases, mostly homicides, during the rest of his time in the gang unit.

 

One of his most notable cases started off with fairly rote facts—a man was pulled over for driving with expired tags and a suspended driver’s license. His car was impounded and during an inventory search, guns were found and linked to a gang shooting. The man was placed under arrest, and the police searched his cell phone incident to the arrest. The cell phone evidence was admitted at trial by Judge Simmons, and this one ruling went all the way up to the Supreme Court in Riley v. California, to resolve a circuit split on the constitutionally of a warrantless search of a cell phone.

 

The other notable case Judge Simmons recalls fondly from his time in the gang unit is the last case he tried, a murder conspiracy case with 18 defendants total, 3 of which went to trial. He describes it as a case where everything you can imagine happening happened. Threats were made to the judge and to counsel, including himself. Testimony of a relocated witness was recorded in the courtroom by a member of the public and posted to social media. One of the defense attorneys even had a heart attack in the middle of trial.


Becoming a Judge

To hear Judge Simmons talk about his trial experience begs the question: why did he ever want to leave? Because you can hear excitement and love for trial work in his voice when he talks about his work as a Deputy DA.

 

Judge Simmons credits his journey to becoming a judge to his mentor, the late Judge Leo Valentine. Throughout his whole career, people have always told Judge Simmons that he has the right demeanor to be a judge—he was well-liked, got along with everyone he crossed paths with, and had a great reputation amongst his coworkers, judges, and lawyers across the table alike. Judge Valentine encouraged him to try.

 

He became a state judge court when he was 37. Judge Simmons started in the Vista courthouse. His ability to get along with everyone quickly landed him an elected position on the executive committee, as the youngest and most junior judge on the committee, and he then went on to become the supervising judge, the first African American Supervising Judge of the Vista branch.

 

Having only been a judge for a few years, Judge Simmons was initially skeptical when he was approached for a judgeship on the Federal Bench in 2020. But his name quickly gained traction and he found himself meeting with the committee, followed with a call from the White House in 2022. He was formally nominated by President Biden in July 2022, and renominated in January 2023. His confirmation came fairly soon thereafter.


Life Outside the Law

Having been on the federal bench now for almost a year, Judge Simmons is often asked if he misses the trial work he spent so much of his career doing and what he wanted to become a lawyer to do. But he himself is even surprised that the answer is no. He misses the work, but the work was all-consuming, and he has found that the move to the bench has allowed him to achieve much better work-life balance and to focus more on the other part of his life that is most important—his family.


Judge Simmons has two sons with his wife—one is a freshman in high school and a rising star basketball player, and another one just starting middle school. Sports continues to be an important part of Judge Simmons’ life. He no longer coaches youth sports, but remains very involved in his son’s basketball games, and you can still find Judge Simmons himself on the court playing recreational basketball. But don’t let his calm demeanor in the courtroom fool you—on the basketball court, Judge Simmons is ultra-competitive and likes to engage in spirited conversation from time to time. Judge Simmons also is involved in church, as well as his sons’ schools and many legal organizations here in San Diego.


Advice to Young Lawyers

Judge Simmons has several very simple pieces of advice that he lives by and encourages young lawyers to abide by as well. First, everyone makes mistakes, but make sure you learn from your mistakes and never make the same mistake twice. Second, protect your reputation—it takes a lifetime to build but only a moment to destroy. Finally, be better today than you were yesterday. 

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