When the budget axe falls at City Hall, you don’t
want to be guy in charge of the office that provides legal services to
poor people charged with crimes.

So, you might wonder why Jeff Adachi, one of the
few elected
public defenders in the country, would have the temerity to be asking
to hire people at a time when Mayor Gavin Newsom is demanding all city
departments cut spending and prepare to do what it takes to get by with
up to 25 percent less money in the upcoming fiscal year.

Actually, it’s pretty simple, if you know Adachi.

A 49-year-old Sacramento native whose
Japanese-American parents and grandparents spent part of World War II
in U.S. internment camps, Adachi takes seriously our constitutional
protections, in particular the right of the criminally accused to
capable legal counsel, regardless of ability to pay.

a committed and competent lawyer, we can’t have faith in our system’s
ability to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty,” Adachi
told me during a conversation about recent clashes at City Hall over
funding for his office.

As Adachi sees it, it’s
his obligation to ask for enough staff to ensure his office can provide
the defense legally guaranteed to all indigent criminal defendants.

Adachi’s request to add staff–in this case, two paralegals at $75,000
a year a piece–is coming at a heavy political price for the two-term
public defender.

Newsom administration officials areportraying Adachi as a recalcitrant who can’t be bothered to do his share of the baling to keep city government afloat.

Last month, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd
made a request of City Controller Ben Rosenfield for a sweeping
managerial audit and performance evaluation of the Office of the Public
Defender, and extraordinary move given that the office is headed up by
another elected official.

And judges and others
in the criminal justice system who Adachi has rubbed wrong over the
years with the tougher, more adversarial edge he has brought to
representation of indigent defendants in Superior Court are jumping at
the chance to knock him down a few pegs.

Indeed, their fingerprints were all over Elsbernd’s request of Rosenfield. In a (PDF) Feb. 3 letter,
the District 7 supervisor asked the controller for an examination into
whether the public defender’s caseload is as heavy as Adachi claims;
into how Adachi decides whether to take a case or have it assigned by
the court to a private lawyer; into Adachi’s per-case spending as
compared to private lawyers and to public defenders in other California
counties; into how many cases Adachi’s office takes to trial rather
settling through less expensive plea bargains; into the comparative
incarceration rates of defendants represented by the public defender as
compared to those assigned by the court to be represented by private
lawyers; and into whether social workers employed by Adachi’s office
can demonstrate success helping the public defender’s clients avoid
getting arrested again.

If you are getting the
impression that Adachi’s office is being set up for a gutting as the
mayor and supervisors close an estimated $576 million deficit, the
public defender would agree.

But the Adachi isn’t one to shrink from a political challenge.

in 2001, Adachi–for years the anointed successor of then- Public
Defender Jeff Brown–was passed over for the job in a political play
designed to hand the post to the daughter of then- state Senate leader
John Burton. Under the arrangement, Public Defender Brown was appointed
to a seat on the state Public Utilities Commission, and then- Mayor
Willie Brown named the state senator’s daughter Kimiko Burton San
Francisco’s Public Defender. Shortly thereafter, Kimiko Burton fired
Adachi, who until then was one of the office’s most successful and
formidable trial lawyers.

Rather than agreeably
fade into life as a private defense lawyer–and a career potentially
far more lucrative than public service–Adachi chose to run against
Kimiko Burton in 2002 as a candidate for the office of public defender.

the contest pitted a political novice against the apparent political
heir of one of the state Democratic Party’s biggest power brokers,
Adachi won by a shocking margin, 55-45, despite record fundraising of more than $1 million on Kimiko Burton’s behalf.

of which may be of much help to Adachi in his jousting with the Newsom
administration and Supervisor Elsbernd as the city attempts to balance
a budget seriously out of whack.

In this case,
Adachi, a veteran of more than 100 jury trials including numerous
homicide cases, simply hopes to get a fair hearing, and that reason
rather than emotion wins out.

His argument is
basically this. Unlike the police department, which does the arresting,
and the district attorney, which does the prosecuting, the public
defender’s office generally doesn’t have control over its caseload.

caseload is reaching its outer limits, Adachi believes. The office of 94 lawyers and 70 support staff represent 24,000 people a year,
according to figures supplied by the public defender. Attorneys in the
felony unit handle carry 60-70 cases at a time, several of them
homicide or other serious matters. According to a 2003 controller
report, the lawyers, called deputy public defenders, work 50-70 hours a
week without overtime pay.

In asking for two
paralegals, which cost the city about $31 an hour as compared to deputy
public defenders at about $85 an hour, Adachi, to his way of thinking,
was being mindful of the city’s budget predicament.

Earlier in his career, Adachi was featured in a film, Presumed Guilty,
a nationally broadcast PBS special on public defenders and the U.S.
criminal justice system. If emotion carries the day and the axe falls
hard at the public defender’s office, Adachi presumably will share some
guilt. When he sensed he was getting nowhere in his staffing request,
he told City Hall his recourse would be to reject cases, forcing the
court to assign private lawyers, at a cost of up to $120 an hour. Not
surprisingly, that position was viewed as a threat–and didn’t go down well.

“Mr. Adachi is not a team player,” Harvey Rose, the Board of Supervisors budget analyst said at the time.

not backing down, Adachi wants to change that perception. To begin to
do so, he is eyeing a new court called the Criminal Justice Center. A
Newsom administration experiment to address low-level criminal and
nuisance offenses in the Tenderloin, the CJC aims to combine the
fast-tracking of cases with social services so that defendants, who
frequently substance abuse and other behavioral problems, can be more
quickly and effectively offered rehabilitative assistance.

Normally, such a courtroom would be staffed by greenhorns attorneys, but Adachi says he doesn’t have anybody to spare.

today, when the CJC presiding judge, Commissioner Ron Albers, calls the
CJC’s first case, Adachi, probably in his trademark black suit and
jet-black, slicked-down mane, plans, for the time being at least, to be
there on hand, at the defense table, to do the job himself.

Watch out, Commissioner Albers.

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