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Kimiko Burton was appointed San Francisco public defender by her father’s long-time political ally. Jeff Adachi, who had worked his way up through the ranks for 15 years to the office’s No. 2 spot, was passed over. On her first day in office, Burton fired Adachi. That was two years ago. In the March 2002 election, Adachi challenged Burton. He won. But then nine months of turmoil in the office ensued because under the San Francisco City Charter, the newly elected public defender could not take office until January. In the final weeks of her term, the lame-duck defender Burton let three top people take a month’s vacation. The effect was to keep her successor from filling their jobs. The results, according to those familiar with the situation, has been a demoralized and deeply divided public defender’s office. With some 80 attorneys and a $13 million budget serving 20,000 clients a year, it only now is showing signs of recovering from the two-year ordeal. “The election polarized the office,” Adachi concedes, “leaving morale at an all-time low.” In an office that usually loses four or five employees a year, he says, some 25 fled over the past two years. Burton did not return messages and could not be reached through the public defender’s office, the mayor’s office, her disconnected cell phone, the office of her husband or the office of her father, state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton. It began in January 2001, when long-time public defender Jeff Brown resigned to accept a position on the state Public Utilities Commission. Brown had held the post for 22 years, winning six four-year terms, the last five without opposition. “I tried to keep politics out of the office as much of possible,” Brown recalls. “People had a long period of stability, and they had a hard time adapting when that changed.” He named Adachi as his interim replacement. Adachi, now 43, had joined the office in 1985 after graduating from the University of California’s Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. He had become Brown’s chief attorney, the No. 2 in the office, with a reputation as a fierce fighter in court. He sought permanent appointment from Mayor Willie Brown. The mayor, however, gave the job to Burton, the head of his office’s criminal justice council. Burton, 38, also a Hastings graduate, had begun her career in 1990 in the public defender’s office. She is the daughter of Mayor Brown’s long-time political ally and fellow Democrat, Burton the state senator. Brown and Burton graduated from San Francisco State University in the mid-1950s, then served together in the California state Assembly for almost 20 years. They have been Democratic stalwarts in California for almost 40 years. “Kim was a competent lawyer,” says Matt Gonzalez, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, “but I don’t think there’s anybody connected with the office of the public defender who thinks she would have gotten the position if she wasn’t the daughter of John Burton.” Gonzalez spent nine years in the public defender’s office and worked with both Burton and Adachi. Neither John Burton nor Willie Brown returned calls seeking comment. At the time of the appointment in January 2001, Willie Brown said, “with Kimiko Burton-Cruz at the helm of the public defender’s office, citizens couldn’t have a better lawyer or a tougher fighter in their corner. Simply put, she is the best person for this job.” THE FIRING When Kimiko Burton fired Adachi, she sent the dismissal letter to his house after he did not return calls. She also demoted or sought resignations from his management team and brought in three of her own people. According to one well-placed person who works in the San Francisco courts, Burton started making questionable reassignments of staff, including forcing a top felony defender, an Adachi supporter, to handle misdemeanor arraignments. “It was a waste of good talent. The morale issue was huge,” the courthouse source says. Adachi began a campaign to unseat Burton, stressing his work record and his background as a son of Japanese-American parents held in internment camps during World War II — an experience that he said gave him a passion for justice. A former president of the Asian-American Bar Association, he called on that community for backing and raised nearly $300,000. The amount would have been a record in what is usually an uneventful race for a job that pays about $140,000 a year. But Burton set the record, raising $589,000. Her list of supporters read like a Who’s Who of California Democrats, including U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. The state Democratic Party and labor unions with ties to Burton’s father went into high gear, garnering another $513,000 in soft-money donations from Sacramento, Calif., lobbyists and others, in what the San Francisco press called an unprecedented effort to help the lawmaker’s daughter. The head of the city’s ethics commission wondered aloud about the propriety of a $1 million-plus political campaign for the job of providing legal services to poor people. “Given her name recognition, it’s like running against Coca-Cola,” Adachi said at the time, painting himself as the grassroots underdog taking on the mighty Brown-Burton political machine. This time the brand name backfired. “Voters saw where the money was coming from,” Adachi says, “from people with absolutely no interest in the San Francisco public defender’s office.” Adachi won a 55 percent to 45 percent victory in March 2002. Law school classmate Teresa Caffese says of Adachi, “He took the same dogged dedication and spirit into the election that he puts into trial work. No one else could have done it.” Caffese had left the public defender’s office under Burton but has returned as Adachi’s chief attorney, the No. 2 spot. “We are used to being the underdogs in court, but when you are an underdog in life and win, well, it’s a sweet victory when that happens,” she says. The election did not end the controversy. POST-ELECTION BLUES After her father cursed reporters on election night, a defiant Burton clung to every minute of her appointed term, which expired on Jan. 8. “After the election she could have brought Jeff Adachi in and said, ‘Let’s work on this transition together,’ ” the courthouse source says. “ She wasted a fabulous opportunity” to turn the political loss into something positive. Amid the chaos, some attorneys in the office called their old boss, Jeff Brown, for advice and consolation. “The divisiveness before the election really bothered me,” he recalls, “but afterward it only got worse. A lame duck trying to run that office for nearly 10 months — it was impossible.” While the delay in Adachi taking office was mandated by law and applies to some other elective offices in San Francisco, it hit the public defender’s office particularly hard because there had been no such change for decades because of Brown’s long tenure. Burton, responding to criticism for not stepping down, told The Recorder, a sister publication to The National Law Journal and law.com, “I am the public defender now and will run the office as I see fit.” Burton’s final act was to give her top three people a month’s vacation in January, leaving Adachi’s own management team to work as “volunteers” until he could officially hire them. “My first challenge,” Adachi says now, “is to get politics out of this office.” For the past two weeks, he and Caffese have been meeting individually with attorneys on staff to reassure them. “I tell them it doesn’t matter who they supported. I am not firing anyone.” Although he named his own managers, Adachi says he offered Burton’s management team top positions. Caffese and Adachi praised the attorneys Burton had hired and said they intend to keep some of her program improvements, especially in the juvenile justice area. Two of Burton’s managers agreed to stay, but Burton’s chief attorney, Randall Martin, is fighting the change. All three were still on vacation and could not be reached for comment. Martin’s attorney, James Lassart, a partner at Redwood City, Calif.’s Ropers, Majeski, Kohn & Bentley, did not return phone calls. Martin is scheduled to return to the defender’s office in February. “Right now it is a standoff,” Caffese says. “We don’t know what he’s going to do.” Despite the lingering effects, Caffese says the first priority of the new administration “is to make sure people understand the election is over and put our focus back on the client.” The nine-month delay gave Adachi a chance to draw up a game plan. He already has called for more attorneys after determining that some are handling 110 felony cases. He has reorganized the office, naming a director of support services. And he has created a recruitment program to seek pro bono lawyers, law students and other volunteers. Most importantly, he wants to establish caseload standards and a case “weighting” system that would allot more time to the most difficult cases. Such ideas, he says, will stabilize the office and staunch the flow of fleeing staff. They also will help meet his office’s mission of offering quality representation to needy clients. To accomplish that mission, Adachi is rallying his troops around 2003 as the 40th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court said that indigent felony defendants have the right to appointed counsel. “We have a long way to go in this country before we meet the promise of equal justice to the poor,” Adachi says.

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