In Defense Of The Public: Jeff Adachi

(published Jan. 27, 2001)

Nichi Bei Times

Jeff Adachi sits in his spacious office overlooking Bryant Street, lined with a backdrop of law books and files of tough-fought cases through 15 years in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.

While he ponders over the first obstacles in his yet-to-be-launched campaign for public defender — his likely 2002 opponent being named to head his office as outgoing Public Defender Jeff Brown leaves to assume a Public Utilities Commission post, and a complicated e-mail incident that has since been referred to as a “misunderstanding” — Adachi remembers what set him on this path to begin with.

The Sacramento native was about 19 years old when he volunteered to help in the legal defense of Chol Soo Lee, a Korean immigrant who was convicted of murder. Adachi and a friend decided to follow the case.

“We became convinced…that this man was innocent,” said the 41-year-old attorney, who was appointed the chief assistant public defender in 1998. “And there began an eight- or nine-year journey to set this man free.”

The other event that inspired him to be an attorney was the unconstitutional internment of Japanese Americans — including his parents and grandparents during World War II.

Early Beginnings

Adachi’s community outlook began humbly in the relatively slow-paced environs of Sacramento, where his parents were heavily involved in the Sacramento Betsuin Buddhist Church.

“It was the kind of community where everybody pitched in together and helped to make things better,” said Adachi, who was a member of the church’s Boy Scout troop. Adachi and a friend started the first Asian club at McClatchy High School, and he slowly began learning more about his own background.

“At some point I decided I was going to do a family history,” said Adachi, who lives in San Francisco with his wife — 1991 Nisei Week Queen Mutsuko Sata — and 6-month-old daughter Lauren. “That really helped me understand who I was. You grew up learning about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln and what they did (but) you don’t end up learning about the 442nd (Regimental Combat Team), the wartime resisters or Fred Korematsu.”

Those early seeds of activism blossomed later, when he became involved in the Chol Soo Lee case, in organizing one of the first pilgrimages to the former Tule Lake concentration camp, and other issues relating to Asian American or ethnic studies.

His father Sam ran Sam’s Auto Service on Freeport Boulevard for 30 years, and his mother Gladys still works as a medical lab technician.

Adachi said he grew up in a lower-middle class neighborhood. “Most of (the neighbors) were like my parents, young kids in (internment) camp, he said. They overcame tremendous adversity to be where they are today.”

Adachi himself grew up knowing the value of hard work, assisting his father at the garage through his teenage years and taking on other laborious jobs such as a waiter or duck plucker, earning 40 cents per duck he de-feathered for hunters. Working in the Public Defender’s Office is the first white collar job he’s ever had.

Adachi credits his mother for instilling in him and his brother some perspective that proved to be instrumental.

“She was the kind of person who believed in education, who instilled in us that we could be anything, and taught us to be fiercely independent in our views and not to be afraid,” he said.

Defending the Public

Adachi graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Asian American studies. He went on to UC Hastings to study law, and in 1986 started his 15-year journey at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.

The former San Francisco JACL president takes his current position very seriously.

“It’s a search not only for the truth, but a search for the humanity behind the case,” Adachi noted. “Because if you can’t explain the humanity behind your client — if you can’t humanize your client — you’re going to lose, straight up. You have to make the jury care about what happens to this individual…All the cards are stacked against you — you’re the underdog.

Adachi has compassion for his clients, notes supporter and community activist Tsuyako “Sox” Kitashima. “But he also worries about their families. If the husband is going to be in jail three months or six months…he’s always wondering how (the family) is going to survive.”

Over the years, Adachi — known to be a gifted trial attorney — has handled some 3,000 cases and over 100 jury trials. Some of them have been high-profile murder cases, such as the reputed “911 Case,” where he defended a Samoan man who was accused of murder. Although his client was originally charged with murder, Adachi secured an involuntary manslaughter conviction. He is currently representing a taxi cab driver accused of killing a woman.

With the job comes the stigma. “People think of public Defender’s as second-class lawyers,” he said. “But the truth of the matter is that, as far as our office is concerned, we’ve really built a reputation of providing high-quality, excellent representation.”

The office itself represents some 15,000 clients a year. As chief assistant public defender, Adachi oversees some 90 attorneys and 30 staff members.

Matt Gonzalez, who worked under Adachi at the Public Defender’s Office before being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in December, said his former boss is incredibly skilled and possesses acute legal skill.

Gonzalez, who represents District 5 — which includes Japantown — has been an early and strong supporter of Adachi’s bid for the office. Adachi “brought the office into the 21st century,” Gonzalez said, perhaps part of the reason why he received the esteemed Public Managerial Excellence Award last October as one of the top managers in the city.

“I don’t think you can find a finer lawyer practicing law in San Francisco,” Gonzalez claimed. “It’s the obvious and natural progression for him to be the public defender.”

Arts Advocate

As tenacious as he may be in the courtroom, Adachi has been an innovator in another arena: the Asian American arts.

In response to the cutting of funding by the National Endowment for the Arts, he led a small group to organize the Asian American Arts Foundation in 1995. He had an ambitious agenda: to create an Asian American Oscars-type ceremony and use the proceeds to fund struggling Bay Area Asian art groups or projects.

“The Golden Ring Awards was our attempt to showcase the artistic talent in our community while showing people the importance of supporting artists,” explained Adachi, who as organizer of the gala also produced video segments serving as biting social commentary on Hollywood stereotypes of Asians.

Through three Golden Ring Awards, the Asian American Arts Foundation has honored the likes of mega-stars Chow Yun-Fat, John Woo, Hiroshima as well as community artists like Brenda Wong Aoki, Janice Mirikitani.

The organization, in turn, used proceeds to award about $150,000 in grants to local artists.

On the Campaign Trail

Adachi is launching his campaign nearly two years before the election because he feels he needed the time to build his campaign. Although he has helped raise support for candidates in the past, Adachi is generally unaccustomed to the cut-throat reality of a political campaign, a lesson he is learning.

“For years I’ve advocated to have more Asian Americans involved in the legal profession at high levels. I really believed that it was important to the empowerment of our community,” he said.

“Perhaps one of the reasons why the Japanese American community has suffered so much discrimination was that we haven’t had people in positions of power,” he reasoned. “So when this opportunity came to me, it made sense that I should do it — like putting my beliefs into action.”

The campaign trail is complicated since San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown recently announced his intent to appoint Adachi’s likely 2002 campaign opponent Kimiko Burton-Cruz, who heads the Mayors Criminal Justice Council, to fill the public defender head vacancy in the interim.

Adachi was disappointed that the mayor did not appoint him, as he is second-in-command in the office.

Burton-Cruz is politically well-connected: she is the daughter of State Senator John Burton — one of the most powerful players in the state and a longtime friend of the mayor — and is married to the mayors special projects coordinator and former Muni head Emilio Cruz.

But Adachi has picked up the early endorsement of many notables, including his outgoing boss Jeff Brown, human rights activist Yuri Kochiyama, Fire Commissioner/Kimochi Inc. Executive Director Steve Nakajo, Airport Commissioner Caryl Ito, civil rights attorney Angela Oh, City Attorney Louise Renne, and Fred and Kathryn Korematsu.

One of his supporters is a noted attorney who had hired a young Adachi as a law clerk years ago — famed Japanese American activist Dale Minami.

“His commitment to the Public Defender’s Office and his long experience there make him the best qualified candidate,” said Minami.

Adachi’s chief community cheerleader agrees.

“This is the first time a Japanese American is getting on the ballot,” notes Kitashima, “and I think we should really support Jeff.”

Jeff Adachi will kick off his campaign for the Public Defender’s Office on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2001, 6 p.m., at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, 1840 Sutter St. in San Francisco’s Japantown.