San Francisco’s longtime public defender dedicated his life to justice for all
The UC Law SF community—and defenders of justice for all—lost a fierce champion in February with the death of San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi ’85.
“The legal profession has lost one of its best,” said UC Law SF Chancellor & Dean David Faigman in a letter he wrote the day after Jeff’s death.
“His lodestar was always the fundamen- tal constitutional principles of fairness and equity,” Faigman said. “He fought to empower those with little or no power, to provide opportunity to those with little or no opportunity, and to ensure that the rule of law was adhered to by those charged with enforcing the law.”
Jeff, whose Japanese-American parents and grandparents were held in internment camps during World War II, began his lifelong commitment to defending the defense-less with his graduation from UC Law SF in 1985. He immediately joined the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office as a deputy public defender, rising to the rank of chief attorney of the office, before being elected San Francisco public defender in 2002.
Jeff fought hard in and out of the courtroom, leading more than 150 jury trails and handling more than 3,000 criminal matters, while backing laws supporting treatment over incarceration, and working to secure fund- ing for the Public Defender’s Office. Under his leadership, the office was known for its innovation. Jeff instituted programs providing in-house social workers; expungement and re-entry assistance; and literacy, health, and recreation opportunities for low-income youth, among many other services.
Extending his mission beyond his day-to-day work, Jeff made award-winning documentary films about public defense, racial stereotypes, and discrimination under the law. He also ran for mayor of San Francisco in 2011. While he did not get elected, he took on City Hall and labor interests during his run by proposing a pension reform system to help restore the city’s financial integrity.
Many at UC Law SF know that Jeff, who as a young man was recognized for his potential through the UC Law SF Legal Educational Opportunity Program (LEOP), mentored generations of law students, inspiring them to enter public service.
“He was a passionate defender of those that needed defending most,” Faigman said. “And he inspired others to do the same.”