What Happens to the Public Defender’s Office Now That Jeff Adachi is Gone?
Jeff Adachi was more than a public defender, a civil rights advocate, a politician, a friend to many and foe to some – he was all of those things in one “superhuman” package. The sense of loss since news of his sudden death spread Friday is palpable across the Bay Area, but the void he leaves is perhaps most acutely felt within the office he dedicated much of his life to.
As the shock settles, new concerns rise about the future of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office without the guidance of their “fearless” leader.
Many claim to be warriors for the people, yet few live up to that promise when things get tough. Jeff Adachi was not just one of the few – in many ways, he set the bar. As slashed budgets and dismal resources plagued, and still do plague, public defense efforts across the nation, Adachi managed to elevate San Francisco’s office to a place where the best and brightest flock, where attorneys are paid decently, where caseloads are not soul crushing and most importantly, where the people defended matter as much as they should. Under his care, public defense in San Francisco became the best defense anyone in trouble could possibly ask for.
Carrying the torch of Adachi’s legacy lies squarely on the shoulders of those who he mentored and cared for, and thankfully for San Francisco, he mentored and cared for many, many people.
Carmen Aguirre worked with Adachi for 14 years and continues to do the work as he taught her from within the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.
“He was deeply invested in the growth of the young attorneys and shaping them into becoming fearless advocates,” Aguirre said. “He would famously show up to watch us in trial, no matter how junior or senior of an attorney you were.”
She remembers him as the man who didn’t sleep. It was normal for him to be up working until 2 a.m. and be back up three hours later to start the next day, and he was known for texting or emailing his team at all hours of the night when he needed help. They would jump to assist because he “walked his talk.”
“If you worked for Jeff, chances are you adored him, admired him and feared him all at the same time,” Aguirre said. “Without a doubt, you respected his work ethic. And he was a part of everything that had to do with our office – the racial justice committee, trying cases, trainings, case conferences, everything. If it came from the [Public Defender’s] office, Jeff had touched it.”
It was the relentless work ethic, the stubborn tenacity and “boundless energy” that enabled him to build one of the nation’s most famous and successful public defense groups. For upcoming law students, there is no better place to learn the art of criminal defense.
Julie Traun, director of court programs for the San Francisco Bar Association, credits Adachi for his pursuit to bring the office to what it is, and needed to be. “What he did for public defense in this country is amazing and it just can’t be overstated how much he elevated the conversation about the importance of high quality defense for people who are accused of crimes.”
Traun met Adachi back when he was still in college, working as a volunteer on the Chol Soo Lee case. She remembers he was inspired by the way Tony Serra championed his client. “He would say to people many years later that it was that experience that drove him to become a public defender,” Traun said.
The Chol Soo Lee case may have inspired him, but Eric Safire, his longtime friend and criminal defense colleague, cites the John Tennison case as real turning point in Adachi’s career.
“That was his first murder case and he lost it,” Safire recalls. “And the guy was innocent, which is like every defense lawyer’s nightmare.” Adachi never accepted that result and together they fought, successfully, to have the case reopened and overturned.
“That’s an example of the kind of dedication that he had. You know, he just wouldn’t let it go.”
Asked if he knew of any other innocent person Adachi was unable to save, Safire’s answered, “No, not if he knew about it.” From all accounts, the former Public Defender would sacrifice life and limb to save each and every innocent person, and that quality never faded.
His work in the PD Office was a reflection of that value, that each person is worth saving, that nobody should pay for a crime they didn’t commit. Largely shaped by his own family’s experience during Japanese internment, Adachi fought especially hard for people in marginalized communities.
“He knew about injustice,” said Mary Ratcliff, SF Bay View editor and friend. “Locking people up because of their race became his goal to eradicate.”
He stood up for those who others chose to turn away, not as a matter of consequence but of priority. Trusted by many in the black community, Adachi was often seen strolling through Hunters Point with people coming out to say hello and ask him questions and as Ratcliff pointed out, he always treated people with dignity. “He actually goes to county jails; he sits in people’s homes to talk with them,” Ratcliff said.
“People around here saw him as a saint.”
Friends, family and fans will gather Wednesday for a candle light vigil to honor his memory – for now, it is a time to grieve the loss of someone great, and as Traun said, it is a time the office needs “stability.” But as the days go on, so must the work and the question of how that is best preserved will become of great significance for the future of public defense in San Francisco and across the country.
Matt Gonzalez has assumed Adachi’s role since Saturday, but it will fall on Mayor London Breed to appoint a replacement until the people of San Francisco choose the next Public Defender at the ballot box. For the time being, it looks as though Breed is content to leave things as they are. Some who knew Adachi best express some anxiety about what will become of the Public Defender’s Office in his absence.
Safire worries that the next election may bring more politician than trial lawyer, which could pose a risk to the office and the people it serves. In that vein, it is up the people to make the right decision when the time comes.
It is unclear at this time whether or not Gonzalez will run for elected office but Aguirre, Safire, Traun and Ratcliff all agree that he is a natural successor and has the chops to do the job, as both a trial lawyer and politician who has learned under the greatest. However, the work itself is tiring and the way Adachi approached it set a bar not easily reachable.
It will take a special breed of trial lawyer and politician to win the position San Francisco voters elected Adachi to for five consecutive terms. As Safire said, “He had an uncanny ability to be both.”
“When he spoke, people believed him, because he spoke from the heart.”
Adachi’s unending passion and dedication likely contributed to his early death but as Traun pointed out, he wouldn’t have had it any other way. Nothing mattered as much as the work, not his health or his popularity – to Adachi, it was always about doing “what was right” and he passed that value on to Aguirre and every other defense attorney he mentored. Preserving his memory and his work will fall not just on an election but on each of those he took under his wing. If the torch will be passed, it will be carried by many.
“It’s not like he’s leaving a bunch of pansies behind,” Traun said.
“These folks know what they’re doing. And they all have this within them, they just need some time and space to grieve and collect themselves. Whether they know it or not, they’ll be fine and they certainly have us as their partner in all of this.”
As San Francisco mourns the loss of the people’s warrior, they can rest assured that his team will do everything possible to retain the quality of defense Adachi strived for, but come election time, the people will have to do the rest.
We here at Broke-Ass Stuart offer our condolences to those who loved Adachi and give thanks for a man who saw service not as burden, but as an honor. Rest in Power…