JACL Mourns Passing of S.F. Public Defender Adachi

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Friends and admirers placed flowers at a makeshift memorial for Jeff Adachi at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. (KPIX)

WASHINGTON — National JACL, the Northern California-Western Nevada-Pacific District (NCWNP), and San Francisco Chapter collectively mourn the passing of San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who passed away on Feb. 22 at the age of 59.

A Sansei born in Sacramento, Adachi first won election to the office of San Francisco public defender in 2002 in a tough election. The voters of San Francisco believed in his vision, values and commitment to represent those marginalized by society. Adachi, winning his first shot at elective office, said the voters decided that “money, power and politics shouldn’t dictate who runs the Public Defender’s Office.”

Adachi was the most highly visible Japanese American elected official in San Francisco and was the only elected public defender in the State of California. He was re-elected four times by the citizens of San Francisco.

“Jeff was tenacious and passionate in his belief that all people, regardless of their economic or social status, deserved full and equal representation in the criminal justice system,” said John Hayashi, president of the San Francisco JACL. “He refused to play politics with his principles, remain unmoved in his convictions and was not intimidated by the powerful and connected.”

Adachi was known as the “people’s lawyer,” who gave voice to the voiceless and powerless. To those in society who were invisible, he gave them a place at the table and in the courtrooms. He embraced his role as a watchdog for police and prosecutorial misconduct, always fighting for justice system reform.

Adachi always celebrated his Japanese heritage and his roots in the Japanese American community. He was involved in and supportive of several community organizations and activities, including the board of directors of the San Francisco JACL.

His family’s experience of incarceration during World War II, because of their Japanese ethnicity, shaped Adachi and had a deep and lasting influence on his life. At a rally last year protesting the White House policy of separating immigrant children from their families, Adachi stated, “This is a very personal issue to me. My parents and grandparents, along with 120,000 Japanese Americans, were interned. During World War II, my mother was six years old and sent to Arkansas for four years without a trial. We said it would never happen again and it is. And that’s why it’s so important that we make sure that people are properly represented.”

“Jeff would fill up a room whenever he entered,” said Hayashi. “If it was a courtroom, he would walk in ready and prepared to fight for his client. If it was a community function, he would greet friends with a big smile, warm handshake or hug. Despite his stature and all his awards, he was a modest, down-to-earth guy; he showed concern for people, had a good sense of humor and was genuine.

“Jeff loved life, his family, his job, his community, his colleagues and friends. He gave fully of himself to everyone and every endeavor.”

“The JACL celebrates the life of Jeff Adachi and all he did for the San Francisco community in fighting for social justice,” said JACL Executive Director David Inoue. “He exemplified the very best of humanity by dedicating his life to uplift others. We mourn his passing and offer our sympathy to his family, his wife Mutsuko and daughter Lauren.”

Statements of Remembrance

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi and then-District Attorney Kamala Harris (now a senator and presidential candidate) in 2004. (Hokubei Mainichi)

Gov. Gavin Newsom (former San Francisco mayor): “San Francisco lost a dedicated servant of the public last night in Jeff Adachi. He was passionate about fighting for fairness and leading the charge on progressive criminal justice policy. Jennifer and I express our deep sympathy to Jeff’s wife and daughter, and to all his family and friends in this time of grief.”

Sen. Kamala Harris (former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general): “I was shocked and deeply saddened last night to learn of the passing of my friend Jeff Adachi. Jeff was a national leader in advocating for the rights of the accused and due process, an outspoken fighter for justice and police accountability, and a fierce and talented advocate for his clients.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (former San Francisco mayor): “As one of the few elected public defenders in the country, Jeff Adachi fought to ensure every person received equal justice under the law. He was a passionate advocate for his clients, and he carried that passion into his work outside of the courtroom. He was a tireless advocate for criminal justice reform and the rights of immigrant children. More than anything, Jeff was a dedicated public servant who cared deeply for the people and city he served. His extraordinary presence will be missed in San Francisco, and my thoughts are with his family during this difficult time.”

State Treasurer Fiona Ma (former San Francisco supervisor): “OMG. I am so sad. Jeff Adachi was a true public servant. He defended those that didn’t have money but needed to be defended. I sat on a jury trial and I can attest that the attorneys in his office were the best of the best because of Jeff. This is a loss for San Francisco.”

State Controller Betty Yee: “San Francisco lost a true gem of an advocate. Rest in peace, dear Jeff.”

San Francisco Mayor London Breed: “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. 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 lead the way on progressive policy reforms, including reducing recidivism, ending cash bail, and standing up for undocumented and unrepresented children.”

San Francisco Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu: “My heart is heavy with news this evening. I knew Jeff as a tireless advocate, a person who refused to fit into any mold… He was the city’s public defender, a filmmaker, an entrepreneur, a father, a husband… We grieve the lost of an irreplaceable public servant tonight.”

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon: “I am deeply saddened by the unexpected news today. Jeff was a passionate advocate who always fought for what he believed in. He represented the underserved and gave his career to public service. We express our deepest condolences to the Adachi family during these difficult times.”

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown (via KRON): “It’s unbelievable. I would have never figured anything bad would happen to Jeff Adachi. He was healthy, he was an athlete.The fact that he had a heart attack and died is devastating for me … Every time I had the chance to introduce Jeff Adachi, I had so much respect for him. I always referred to him as my personal lawyer.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland): “Jeff was a tireless advocate for justice who never wavered from his fight for San Francisco’s most vulnerable communities. He will be missed here in the Bay Area, and my thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.”

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf: “Jf Adachi fought for truth and justice — values that speak to all of us. Although based in S.F., Jeff’s moral leadership helped frame a Bay Area ethos. I will miss him as a friend, and a colleague in the fight for a more just and compassionate government.”

Assemblymember Phil Ting (former San Francisco assessor/recorder): “So incredibly sad over the passing of Jeff Adachi. He was an amazing public servant and fierce advocate for those who had no representation and no voice. Condolences to his wife and daughter. In my mind, he will always be the model public defender.”

Assemblymember David Chiu (former San Francisco supervisor): “So saddened by the tragic news about Jeff Adachi. Twenty-one years ago, I first met Jeff in a courtroom at the Hall of Justice. He strode into the courtroom as if he owned the place — a legal force of nature. As a young prosecutor, I remember asking a colleague, ‘What’s that guy’s story?’

“Over the next two decades, we all saw how much of a force of nature Jeff Adachi truly was. Jeff was not only a champion for the accused, the downtrodden, those who needed a fighter, but he also led the progressive movement for criminal justice reform while running the best public defender’s office in the country. Over the years, we saw his passion for the Asian American community, for the arts, for filmmaking, and for civil rights.

“Our hearts go out to his wife Mutsuko, his daughter Lauren, and his extended family of community warriors. Rest in power, brother.”

San Francisco Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer: “I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of our public defender, Jeff Adachi. I knew Jeff as a man with a big presence but also a gentle, kind, and steadfast determination to deliver justice to those most marginalized in society.”

Former San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim: “Jeff Adachi is a legendary courtroom attorney, criminal justice reform warrior, eminent public servant + good human being. He was your most persistent + fiercest advocate. Whether it was his client, campaign, documentary, BARBRI classes (yes he created and taught BARBI prep AND donates the proceeds to charity!), he was relentless.

“A passionate voice for the visibility of Asian Americans, he promoted the arts and films and he organized. My thoughts are with your family, your huge community of friends + colleagues. Rest in power. So much respect.

“It isn’t lost upon me that San Francisco has lost two of our historically elected Asian American leaders in last 14 months. They were both firsts in their offices and spent their entire careers in public service. Thank you for shattering ceilings.” (Ed Lee, San Francisco’s first Asian American mayor, died in December 2017 at age 65.)

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Garrett L. Wong: “Public Defender Jeff Adachi was a tireless advocate for all San Franciscans and passionate in his pursuit of justice in our City. This truly is a sad day for all who benefited from his ardent pursuit of justice. On behalf of the court, we are saddened by Mr. Adachi’s passing and extend our deepest condolences to his family, co-workers and all who worked closely with him to achieve equality, justice and fair treatment for every defendant in our justice system.”

Emily Murase, executive director of San Francisco Department on the Status of Women and former SFUSD Board of Education commissioner: “Tragic, unbelievable news of the death of Jeff Adachi from a sudden heart attack Friday evening. San Francisco has lost a tenacious public defender, the only elected PD in the state, a fearless advocate for the rights of the vulnerable, a champion of racial equity, a leader for Asian Americans and the arts, and I have lost a dear mentor and friend. Sincere condolences to the family.”

Asian Law Caucus Executive Director Aarti Kohli: “Jeff Adachi had a selflessness and zeal that are exceedingly rare in this world. He was a true public servant whose passion in the pursuit of justice stood as a shining example for all San Franciscans. As the child and grandchild of interned Japanese Americans, Jeff knew the cost of mass incarceration and the structural racism that drives it. He dedicated his life to advocating for victims of police misconduct and community members ensnared by our fundamentally broken criminal justice and immigration systems.

“Jeff will be deeply missed, not only by those of us fortunate to work with him at Advancing Justice–Asian Law Caucus, but by all those who were inspired by his work on behalf of San Francisco. We will strive to continue fiercely advocating against the criminalization of vulnerable community members in his honor. Our thoughts and sympathies are with Jeff’s family and all the dedicated members of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office at this difficult time.”

Los Angeles County Public Defender Richardo Garcia: “I am deeply saddened by the news of Jeff’s passing. It is an honor for all public defenders to have shared our calling with him. My most heartfelt condolences to his family and the entire San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. Jeff, you will be missed.”

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