Most of us will never have to rely on the services of the public defender. So why should we care that Mayor Newsom, in announcing his budget last week, cut the Public Defender’s office by $2 million dollars? After all, don’t we want people accused of crime to receive lousy representation?
Those who have been following this story would agree that Public Defender Jeff Adachi has been rather brash in his assertion that his office’s services are “constitutionally mandated.” Aren’t health and welfare cuts just as, if not more important that making sure someone accused of a crime has a lawyer? Shouldn’t public defenders take their fair share of cuts like everyone else? And didn’t Newsom have to deliver a comeuppance to another elected official who would dare challenge his across the board cuts?
But of course, not everyone received a staffing cut. Mayor Newsom bragged that his budget did not cut a single police officer or firefighter job. In fact, Newsom awarded police and sheriff $50 million in overtime alone– over twice the entire amount of the public defender’s budget - and included a raise for the police and sheriffs. According to the SF Examiner, Newsom increased the investigations budget of the police department by $7.3 million. And the Guardian reported that Newsom increased his own staff to include six public relations specialists, and spent thousands to continue funding special assistants to promote his green environmental initiatives.
This “only-in-San Francisco” saga began in February when Newsom ordered city departments to submit a 25% budget cut and Adachi refused. Adachi argued that cutting his already overloaded staff would cost the city more, since he would exercise his option to refer cases to private lawyers who charge more than public defenders earn.
Newsom obviously didn’t buy Adachi’s argument, since he reportedly refused to meet with Adachi.
When Adachi couldn’t get a meeting with Newsom, he resorted to papering the public with a neo-classic postcard and poster campaign (compared to Newsom’s twittering), and organized a “Justice Summit” where the keynote speaker – a prominent federal judge – received a phone call the day before from Washington DC, urging him not to speak at the event. The judge nonetheless attended the Summit, which reportedly drew over 400 people.
Adachi also convinced his entire staff to voluntarily take a 10% pay cut to help combat the city’s financial difficulties. When told of Adachi’s action, Newsom’s budget director responded by saying that “we have to bring (Adachi) into line.”
Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, a close Newsom ally, ordered a Controller’s audit of Adachi’s office, calling Adachi a “lousy manager.” Adachi shot back by calling the audit a waste of money and politically motivated and noted that he had previously won two mayoral managerial excellence awards from both Mayors Willie L. Brown, Jr. and Newsom.
This prompted the SF Weekly’s The Snitch
to label the feud between Adachi vs. Newsom as “budget chicken” predicting that things would turn out badly for Adachi. And they were right: this week Newsom cut Adachi’s budget by 17 public defenders, prompting Adachi to say that he would be forced to withdraw from representing 6,000 people next year. According to Adachi’s math, these cases would be referred to private lawyers at $85-$125 an hour and will cost the city more than it would save by cutting his budget.
Newsom even went so far as to pour salt in the wound in an uncharacteristic off-the-cuff comment during his otherwise “almost perfect” budget speech. “If you’re Jeff Adachi, you’re angry because you have to lay-off people,” Newsom said at the end of his prepared remarks.
And so, the budget fight between Newsom and Adachi has ended. While Adachi will next bring his case to the Board of Supervisors, Newsom’s decision to slash the Public Defender’s budget will stand for now.
But somehow I wouldn’t call this match-game over. Newsom is running for Governor, and while most voters probably don’t care about how he treats the public defender, they will be weary of another politician who wastes public dollars in order to shovel out political payback.
It also raises questions as to whether Newsom has the political backbone and experience to deal with Sacramento’s famously difficult legislators. One might argue that if Newsom can’t work out a compromise with the city’s public defender, how is he going to fare in negotiations with strong-willed politicians? And his remarks about Adachi during his budget speech were probably better left unsaid and might make some wonder if he has the thick skin necessary to handle criticism.
But aside from the politics of the situation, Newsom’s budget cuts raise a much more troubling question: whether Newsom can be trusted to prioritize programs that are core functions of government. By cutting offices like the Public Defender and the District Attorney, Newsom demonstrates that he really doesn’t have an understanding of how the criminal justice system works or worse, that he doesn’t care.
Crippling these offices will only result in court backlogs and increased incarceration times, and will cause the same kind of problems locally that California is experiencing in its bloated correctional system.
Over 17 years ago, before I became a corporate attorney, I interned at the Public Defender’s office for a summer and was able to see first-hand what the office does. Most of the office’s clients were minorities and poor people who, for a variety of reasons, wound up in the criminal justice system. Many clients were mentally ill or addicted to drugs and needed treatment.
Some of the public defenders were social workers in addition to attorneys, trying to find programs and services for clients who desperately needed them, while trying to negotiate legal outcomes for their clients.
Many people, particularly those charged with misdemeanor crimes, were in the system for the first time. Through the use of diversion programs, which allow people to give back to society by doing community service for minor crimes, the office really helped many people turn their lives around.
I was also surprised to find out there actually were some innocent people charged with crimes. During that summer, I worked on a case involving a man that had been wrongfully jailed for murder. His family had no money, and had to rely on the public defender’s office. His public defender spent countless hours investigating the case and uncovered evidence that led to the man’s release.
For the first time, I understood why it was important to have jury trials, and that having a defender who was skilled as a trial lawyer could make all of the difference in the world, just as having a lazy, unskilled lawyer could damn an innocent person to prison or even death.
Out of this experience, I came to understand that public defenders play a critical role by keeping the system honest, and making sure that constitutional rights most of us take for granted are respected and upheld. By generously funding the police while simultaneously cutting the public defender’s budget, Newsom is upsetting this delicate balance.
This is the best case that Adachi could make to the Board of Supervisors in arguing against the budget cuts, and Newsom might be well advised to reconsider his position if he wants to be seen as a leader who is capable of becoming Governor.
John J. Lee is a native San Franciscan. He is a partner in a boutique San Francisco law firm.