By JACL National
WASHINGTON, D.C. — National JACL, the Northern California, Western Nevada, Pacific District and the 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, Calif., 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, remained 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 chapter.
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 6 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.”
Adachi 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.”
More than 1,000 people gathered at an evening vigil that was held for Adachi on Feb. 27 at his office, followed by a march to City Hall in remembrance of Adachi’s fight for human rights and compassion. Participants there called Adachi a “warrior who fought for people who suffered injustices.”
Among the many outspoken speakers was Rudy Corpuz, founder and director of United Playaz, a neighborhood youth empowerment organization, who spoke passionately about Adachi’s fight for justice.
The Asian Art Museum also held a memorial tribute dedicated to Adachi’s life and accomplishments at Samsung Hall on March 1. The event featured Adachi’s 60-minute documentary “Defender,” as well as guest speakers that included Francisco Ugarte, immigration attorney, San Francisco Public Defender’s Office; Michelle Tong, deputy public defender, San Francisco Public Defender’s Office; Jay Xu, director/CEO, Asian Art Museum; and Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney, San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.
Gonzalez, Adachi’s second-in-command, was appointed by Mayor London Breed to take over day-to-day operations following Adachi’s unexpected death. Breed has not yet indicated whom she will choose to replace Adachi before the seat is filled in the Nov. 5 election.
An official memorial was held on March 4 at City Hall. Speakers included Breed; former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown; Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California’s Paul Osaki; Adachi’s brother, Stan; and Rev. Ronald Kobata of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco.
— Additional reporting by P.C. Staff