MG: Jeff, first of all itís a
pleasure to get to sit down with you and talk about the upcoming public
defenderís race. What motivated you to become a public defender?
JA: I come from a humble background. My dad was an auto mechanic and my
mom was a lab tech. They really had to struggle to achieve what they
had. My parents and grandparents were interned in the concentration
camps during World War II. They lost everything they owned and had to
start all over again.
I remember asking them why they had been imprisoned for four years, and
my mom said it was because they were Japanese-American. There was no
trial, but they were judged guilty by society. That sense of injustice
has always stayed with me. In the late 70ís, I became involved in the
case of a San Francisco man who had been wrongfully convicted for a
crime he didnít commit. His name was Chol Soo Lee, and he was on death
row. I worked with others on the case for seven years, organizing in the
community, to bring his case back to the courts. Tony Serra and Stu
Hanlon were the defense attorneys, and Iíll never forget the moment when
the jury announced its not guilty verdict. It cemented my desire to
become a public defender and fight for those who were unable to afford a
MG: Having worked in the office for nearly ten years myself, I know how
much more experienced you are than your opponent. Do you think the
average voter is getting the message? And what is Burton doing to ďbeef
upĒ her experience?
JA: I was a public defender for over fifteen years and have dedicated my
entire professional career to public defender work. As the officeís top
trial lawyer, I handled over 3,000 criminal cases and tried over 100
jury trials, including 50 felony trials. Unlike my opponent, I have
handled and tried murder and serious felony cases. In 1998, I was
promoted to the second-in-command under Jeff Brown, who asked me to
succeed him after 22 years. This is the message of the campaign which we
are putting out to voters.
My opponent, on the other hand, has said that the job doesnít require
any real trial experience and has said it is an administrative job. That
is nonsense. The daily work of a public defender is to be a trial
lawyer. Anyone who works in that office will tell you that in order to
make decisions about how serious cases should be handled, you need the
experience of doing it yourself. The message of the Burton campaign is
that experience doesnít matter.
MG: My understanding is that Kim Burton has handled only one felony
trial. As the public defender, would you allow someone with that kind of
experience to be even a misdemeanor supervisor in the office?
JA: Who would hire a fire chief who had fought only one fire? The public
defender is the head of the largest criminal defense firm in the City ó
90 lawyers and 30 staff. The public defender must train, direct, and
supervise trial lawyers. The public defender must be someone who can
command the respect of the rank and file, and the staff will not respect
someone who hasnít been through the trenches themselves. Even a
misdemeanor supervisor needs to have the respect of the lawyers they are
in charge of supervising, and more importantly, the experience to train
lawyers in the art of trying cases and representing clients. If you were
a public defender handling a case load of 50 murder, serious felony,
three strike, and other felony cases, you would have a hard time taking
direction from someone who had tried only one felony case.
MG: The rumor Iíve been hearing is that the Brown/Burton machine is
trying to invent some qualifications for Kim so that she can counter her
obvious shortcomings in this regard. Recently, I noticed that the
California Law Business Magazine named Kim as one of the top lawyers
under the age of 40 in California. I practically fell out of my chair
when I read that! Obviously her record as a criminal trial lawyer would
not qualify her for such a listing and to my knowledge Kim has never
tried any civil cases, so how do you explain this? I mean, it sounds
pretty suspect to me.
JA: I donít know about what qualifications they looked at in choosing
her, but I would think that a professional business magazine would have
some standards before declaring that someone was a top lawyer. Lawyers
are usually evaluated by their professional accomplishments, cases they
have handled, clients they have represented, and verdicts they have won.
Again, I donít know what that particular magazine looked at, but I would
hope that their award was based on qualifications and not the fact that
they have ties to her father, State Senator John Burton, or her
godfather, Mayor Willie Brown. One does have to wonder what other
factors might carry weight with a business publication other than her
MG: Unlike your opponent, I know youíve taught in law schools, published
articles in legal journals, and been recognized for your management
abilities. Can you say something about this?
JA: You know, itís ironic that barely a year ago the mayor himself
presented me with the Public Managerial Excellence Award. I was chosen
as one of the cityís top five managers by the Mayorís Fiscal Advisory
Committee, a group of business leaders who made recommendations to him.
I was the first public defender in history to ever receive this award.
Iíve also taught law for ten years and published five law textbooks, but I
guess in some circles it doesnít really seem to matter as much as
political and family connections.
MG: You were fired by your opponent within hours of her first day in
office. Was that difficult?
JA: I had taken a vacation day to run some errands. When I got home, my
wife had received a hand-delivered letter from one of the investigators
in the office. The letter said that my services were no longer needed.
This is the only communication I ever had with my opponent regarding the
office. I think the thing that troubled me most was that there was no
attempt to ensure a smooth transition for the sake of the clients. You
have to understand, I was representing two clients in major murder cases
in addition to preparing the budget, running the office, and dozens of
other tasks. I was never asked to participate in a debriefing, and the
many projects I was working on were abandoned. But I think the hardest
part was not being able to do what I love, and I miss the people I
worked with for over fifteen years. The lawyers in that office are great
people to work with.
MG: Kim Burton has been running the office for six months or so. What do
you think of the job she has done?
JA: What Iíve seen is a politicization of the office, a lack of
diversity in her management team, and a disregard for
non-English-speaking clients. In her first week on the job, my opponent
fired an incredibly talented young Latina lawyer and replaced her with
an ex-prosecutor whose father happens to be a judge. I had promoted the
first lesbian attorney in the 80-year history of the office to a
supervisor position in the office, and my opponent demoted this attorney
in both rank and pay, while male supervisors, who likewise were not
supporting her bid for public defender, were only demoted in rank, not
pay. She also demoted the first gay felony supervisor. Now there are no
gay or lesbian supervisors in the office. My opponent also fired the
only Latino supervisor in the office, and now there are no Latino
supervisors in the office. She also canceled a number of programs that
were highly successful.
I had started a program to help kids who were at the Youth Guidance
Center get back into school with special services, such as counseling
and tutoring. My opponent terminated that program in her first two weeks
in office. Sheís also severely cut interpreter services for non-English-speaking clients.
MG: Itís really a shame that machine politics is entering the race for
public defender. This is a job, after all, to represent the hundreds of
folks out there who get charged with a crime and donít have the personal
wealth to hire a lawyer. Any idea why this job is an elected one in San
Francisco? I understand it is appointed everywhere else.
JA: Itís important that the public defender be independent, which can
only be attained by making the post an elected one. Having an election
also makes the public defender directly accountable to the people he or
MG: Your opponent has already received over half a million dollars in
campaign contributions and is certain to benefit from huge independent
expenditures (or ďsoft moneyĒ as they call it) before election day. Iíve
even heard that Modesto Congressman Gary Condit has contributed money to
her campaign. Why is there so much money in this race?
JA: Itís clear that most of the $700,000 is coming from John Burtonís
many connections. This is the most money ever raised for a local
candidate in San Franciscoís history, other than Willie Brownís last
mayoral race. Why? I donít think itís because John Burtonís friends
suddenly have an interest in having a good public defenderís office in
San Francisco. Itís an attempt to buy an office, and I donít think the
public defenderís office should be for sale, particularly when peopleís
lives are at stake.
MG: Your support is very diverse. Does this ever get you in trouble with
progressives who get nervous when they see conservative names on your
campaign literature? I guess it works the other way around too, with
conservatives noticing your progressive support?
JA: I am building a wide base of supporters from different political
philosophies and persuasions, and from all of San Franciscoís diverse
communities. Both conservatives and progressives have an interest in
making sure that we have clean and honest government. Iíve been
extremely fortunate to receive support from all over the city. And no,
it hasnít caused a problem, because people understand that I am running
because I want to run a competent, professional law office, and not as a
springboard to some other political office.
I also think itís worth noting that the two members of the Board of
Supervisors who are lawyers and who happen to be former public defenders
are supporting my candidacy.
MG: I wanted to ask you about the Central Labor Council. I understand
they are already getting behind Willie Brownís race for the State Senate
three years from now, so Iím not surprised that they would back his
god-daughter. But how are the rank and file of labor dealing with this
race? Tell us about your support among working people.
JA: A recent independent poll showed that we were leading this race
citywide. That same poll showed that we were especially strong among
union households. Working people have shown a growing tendency in recent
years to vote against the political machine even when the machine
succeeds in pressuring their leadership into making unsavory deals. That
shift among the workers has actually strengthened the leadershipís
ability to resist those deals, as shown by their recent decision to
support the Municipal Utility District, after opposing it for so many
years. Where this trend may lead in the future will be interesting to
MG: Jeff, itís been a pleasure talking with you. You of course have my
full support and my commitment that I will walk precincts for you as we
approach the election. But I have to warn you, politics is the most
duplicitous business Iíve ever been involved with. In the courtroom,
judges and prosecutors may be coming after you, but there are rules that
everyone must abide by. I wish I could say the same for politics.
Seriously though, keep up the good work.
JA: Thanks, Matt. Iíll keep that in mind in the months ahead and I
greatly appreciate your support.
Jeff Adachi is a candidate for San Francisco public defender.
Matt Gonzalez conducted this interview on November 12,
2001. Gonzalez was a deputy public defender in San Francisco from
1991-2001. He is currently a member of the Board of Supervisors
representing District 5, which includes the Western Addition,
Haight-Ashbury, and Inner Sunset neighborhoods.