San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi Dead at Age 59

Jeff Adachi speaking in 2016 at Hastings College

SF Public Defender Jeff Adachi, the only elected public defender in the state, died last night as he was traveling.  According to KGO-TV, he died of a heart attack.  No official details have been released.

At 9:40 pm on Friday, SF Mayor London Breed tweeted, “I am saddened to announce that San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi passed away tonight. San Francisco has lost a dedicated public servant, and our communities have lost a champion.

“As one of the few elected public defenders in our country, Jeff always stood up for those who didn’t have a voice, have been ignored and overlooked, and who needed a real champion,” Mayor Breed said in a statement. “He was committed not only to the fight for justice in the courtroom, but he was also a relentless advocate for criminal justice reform.

“Jeff led the way on progressive policy reforms, including reducing recidivism, ending cash bail, and standing up for undocumented and unrepresented children.”

SF DA George Gascon tweeted, “Jeff was a passionate advocate who always fought for what he believed in. He represented the underserved and gave his career to public service.”

Jeff Adachi was a champion of social justice and criminal justice reform – leading the way toward raising numerous issues with his annual Justice Summit, he was an early advocate for bail reform and fought the Trump administration’s immigration policies and fought for police accountability.

Last year, in a guest piece in the Vanguard, he remarked that “biased police practices are a national problem, the racial gap in arrests in San Francisco is an abyss.”

Jeff Adachi (right) with Phil Telfeyan (left) and Vanguard Director David Greenwald (center) in 2016. Mr. Telfeyan is lead counsel in several lawsuits against money bail.

On the war on drugs: “The war on drugs has ruined countless lives, devastated black and brown communities and cost taxpayers a fortune. As public defenders, we see the collateral damage every day.”

The Vanguard spoke to Jeff Adachi on January 18 after bail reform was placed on hold due to litigation from the bail industry.

He called this move “expected.”  But he was hopeful that it would force the supporters of SB 10 to “correct some of the problems with the legislation in order to win back the support of progressive leaders.”

He added, “It’s even more important, given the fact that SB 10 has been suspended, that we fully and successfully litigate against money bail.”

In the SF Chronicle, Deputy Public Defender Eric Quandt called his boss “a true visionary for equal rights and criminal justice.

“I’ve never seen a defense lawyer more tenacious or courageous,” Mr. Quandt said. “He made the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office one of the premier law firms in the nation. I’m so proud to have had the opportunity to work under his guidance. I’m devastated. I’m sure I’m speaking for many of my colleagues.”

In 2013, the Vanguard awarded Mr. Adachi with its Attorney of the Year award.

Here is Mr. Adachi talking about the award at the 2014 Justice Summit:

In 2016, in the days after President Trump’s stunning victory, he was the keynote speaker at the Vanguard annual event on Bail Reform:

Jeff Adachi’s parents were Japanese-Americans living in California, and were moved across the country during WWII and interned in Arkansas for four years.  It was something his parents never talked about.  He only learned about the internment history at school.

According to one account, he didn’t believe it and his mother had to sit him down to tell him the story.

“I was like, what crime did you commit, were you convicted of anything? And she was like, no, it was just because we were Japanese,” he said. “I was just in third grade, so you don’t know what to think. But it stayed with me.”

“I see my role as public defender as a position to try to provide the legal help that my parents never got,” he added.

Mr. Adachi grew up in Sacramento, later attended UC Berkeley and graduated from UC Hastings Law School in 1985.

Jeff Adachi is survived by his wife Matsuko and his daughter Lauren.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Todd Edelman

    Jeff Adachi’s parents were Japanese-Americans living in California, and were moved across the country during WWII and interned in Arkansas for four years.  It was something his parents never talked about.  He only learned about the internment history at school.

    Maybe: “In 1941, when the United States declared war against Japan following that country’s attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, Jeff Adachi’s parents were American citizens who lived and worked in California. Due to their Japanese origin, and because they lived in a state on the Pacific Ocean, the next year they were forcibly moved to a concentration camp in Arkansas, where they stayed for four years. It was something his parents never talked about.  He only learned about it at school.”

    (I do not know if Adachi used the term “concentration camp” when describing this situation.)

    1. Bill Marshall

      They were called “internment”, or “relocation” ‘centers’… the “liberal” Gov of California, Earl Warren, supported the executive order by the Feds.

      In some areas of the country, they did the same/similar for citizens of German or Italian roots.

      I know several kids whose parents met in those ‘centers’, but they were born outside of that.  One center was @ the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno… they were put up in horse stalls or temporary buildings… better climate/conditions than many other ‘centers’ in CA.

      During the internment, many folk managed to legally seize their properties, including businesses.

      Not one of this State’s shining moments.

      Despite any disagreements I had with his policies/views, he walked among us, and had the courage of his personal/professional convictions…

      I think of John Donne’s “meditation”… ‘if any part of our society is torn away from the main, are we not the less?’ (rough paraphrase).  Will keep his family and friends in my thoughts/prayers.

  2. David Greenwald

    Statement from the SF Public Defender’s Office:

    “As many of you might have heard, Public Defender Jeff Adachi passed away last night. We are all devastated. Everything you’ve heard about his drive and dedication about criminal justice reform and his respect for our clients is true. Our department is one of the leading lights among public defenders in the country and he elevated our goals and ethics to a level we all pushed ourselves to rise to. He devoted his life to defending the most vulnerable people in our city — the addicted, the mentally ill, the poor. This work was his passion. Our thoughts are with his family.”

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