A ‘Superhero’ Who Could Pull off a Zoot Suit

In the first Board meeting since Jeff Adachi’s death, city supervisors offered a touching tribute to S.F.’s late public defender.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi rallies with members of the Black Lives Matter movement on the steps of the Hall of Justice. (Image: Richard Bui)

Memorials are customarily a time to say nice things about someone who’s passed. Accolades are handed out generously, past arguments are made light of, and kindness abounds. But in Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting — the first since Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s untimely death the Friday prior — San Francisco politicians’ sadness in the face of loss felt particularly sincere.

Public defenders don’t have an easy job. Their task in upholding the Sixth Amendment includes, at times, advocating for people who have done heinous crimes. It’s easy to vilify someone who champions the rights of a person who committed murder or rape, despite the fact that this core right to counsel is an essential part of the Constitution.

But public defenders in San Francisco go above and beyond the day-to-day defense of their clients, in part thanks to the tireless, demanding leadership of Adachi, who died Friday evening at age 59. The only elected public defender in the state of California, he led efforts to overturn the cash-bail system, protect people in custody from violence, and advocate for undocumented immigrants (the latter to the ire of President Donald Trump).

“That dude had guts,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin said Tuesday. “He took on issues that none of us included would touch with a 10-foot pole. He wasn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with power. He was not afraid of the cops, of exposing what needed to be exposed.”

He also wasn’t afraid of rolling up his sleeves and doing the work himself. As recently as December, Adachi defended a client accused of murder, earning him a not-guilty verdict.

“When you’d rather be defended by your public defender than a private attorney, that tells you a lot,” Supervisor Shamann Walton said.

Adachi’s contagious enthusiasm for his work and his unwavering commitment to defend those who fall into our criminal justice system trickled down to the lawyers who worked in his office, who, as Peskin pointed out, easily “could have gone to higher-paying jobs.”

Supervisor Hillary Ronen — whose husband, Francisco Ugarte, manages the immigration unit in the Public Defender’s office — thanked Adachi for creating an office in which her husband loved to work.

“Francisco said that walking in the Tenderloin with Jeff was like walking with Steph Curry or Beyonce,” she said. “People on the street felt like he was theirs. If they got into trouble, which they inevitably would — because they were poor or they were Black or they were Brown — they would have the best of the best representing them.”

But amid the at-times tearful tributes to his life’s work were a slew of humorous memories, too. Nine out of 10 photos Adachi showed him throwing his playful sideways peace sign, and Supervisor Matt Haney said that if they were at an event, you could always find Adachi on the dance floor.

“Jeff was the epitome of cool,” said Peskin. “This is a guy who could pull of wearing a zoot suit.”

“It is his own humanity that I will miss the most,” Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer said. “His smile, his warmth, his belief in people, and yes sometimes his big showy personality too.”

As of this writing, Adachi’s replacement has yet to be appointed by the mayor; and come November, San Franciscans will be tasked with not only electing a new district attorney but a public defender, too.

The person running for the latter has some big shoes to fill.

Supervisor Gordon Mar put it best. Adachi, he said, was “a genuine superhero.”

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