Public Defender Unapologetic About Playing Budget Chicken with Mayor, Says It's Impossible to Cut His Costs

Jeff at BMAGIC event.jpg
Richard Bui
Jeff Adachi
In recent weeks, SF Weekly (and others) have covered the increasingly nasty public exchanges between Public Defender Jeff Adachi and the Board of Supervisors and Mayor's Office. In a nutshell, the Mayor's Office has asked all city departments to lop 25 percent off their yearly budgets. Only Adachi has said that he will not -- and cannot.

In fact, as the Chronicle reported yesterday, the budget Adachi submitted to the Mayor's Office actually called for $1.7 million more to go to his office. The public defender told SF Weekly he was unrepentant about failing to buy into City Hall's 25 percent off sale, claiming that, unlike every other department head in the city, he simply cannot cut his budget -- at risk of violating the United States Constitution.

While deep cuts to other city agencies will certainly result in pain and woe, Adachi reminds that the Sixth Amendment requires the appointment of counsel in criminal cases. If public defenders don't take those cases, Adachi says he's Constitutionally mandated to hire private attorneys -- who earn more money and work fewer hours than public lawyers.

"The easiest thing for me to do would have been to quietly stop accepting cases. You think anyone at City Hall would have known? No," Adachi says. "If they cut our budget, the consequence is that the city will have to pay private lawyers. We cannot avoid that liability -- I don't know how many times I need to say this. What we're seeing now is mind-boggling to me."

As far as cutting costs, Adachi says 90 percent of his $23 million budget is tied up in the salaries of his 160 employees, 95 of whom are lawyers. In order to submit to the mayor's cost-cutting mandate, Adachi says he'd have to let 25 of his attorneys go -- yet, once more, cases Adachi's lawyers cannot take up must be farmed out to private lawyers. Adachi also said he's powerless to simply slash lawyers' salaries -- that'd be a union violation -- and further claims that it was the Mayor's Office which negotiated those salaries in the first place (Adachi says the $1.7 million bump in his proposed budget was for salary increases already signed off by the mayor).

The average caseload of a San Francisco public defender, incidentally, is 150 to 200 outstanding cases at any one time for lawyers handling misdemeanors and 50 to 70 cases for those handling felonies.

Intriguingly, Adachi also grumbles that the Mayor's Office had promised him a "couple of attorneys" to staff the city's fledgling Community Justice Center -- a pet project of Mayor Gavin Newsom's. Not surprisingly, that offer has not materialized. Messages sent to the Mayor's Office regarding this accusation were not returned.

As for what comes next, Adachi does not know. Newsom Spokesman Nathan Ballard has told the press that, come June 1, if Adachi doesn't make the cuts, the Mayor's Office will make them for him -- the governmental equivalent of Dad shouting to the kids in the back seat that if they don't shut up he'll turn this car around and drive straight home.

Adachi -- who says he is cooperating with a Controller's Office audit of his department -- said he has "prepared very strong justifications" for his non-snipped budget and "I look forward to presenting my case." When asked if he would resign if the Mayor's Office slashed his budget over his protestations, Adachi laughed -- hard.

"I plan on being Public Defender for a long time."  

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