Being effective in a budget battle is more of a heroic art than a science, says San Francisco County Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

“I always wanted to be a superhero,” said Adachi, whose personal favorite is Batman.

The San Francisco superhero and his office are making their case by circulating a postcard in the guise of a comic-book cover featuring a dashing public defender.

Also on the art advocacy front, the office is promulgating a poster with original artwork of a football running back carrying the ball for “constitutional rights,” stiff-arming “budget cuts.”

Adachi’s artistic offensive in late May was in response to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s call, in the city and county’s revenue squeeze, for every department to tighten its belt by 25 percent.

Adachi has argued, in dry budget hearings and splashy artistic representations, that the public defender’s office should not be bound by the across-the-board dictate.

He said the office fulfills a guarantee from the U.S. Constitution, the “right to a speedy and public trial,” with its Supreme Court-affirmed right to an attorney for a defendant who cannot afford to hire one.

That’s the Sixth Amendment, which is represented by the poster’s running back, bearing a red, San Francisco 49er-ish jersey bearing the number “ 6th.”

The art was adapted from a real “Public Defender” comic book from the 1950s, which was in the collection of an investigator in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, said Larry Roberts.

“I’m kind of self-taught with graphic design courses and what I’ve picked up through osmosis doing print design jobs,” said Roberts, a legal assistant and information technology “jack of all trades” in the San Francisco Public Defender’ s Office. 

He took the original design of a trench-coated defender dashing through the streets of a city, dodging gun-toting bad guys in a careening car, and eliminated the cover line from the 1950s. On his computer, Roberts added the words, “Save the Public Defenders from Budget Cuts.”

Adachi’s status as the only elected public defender in the state gives him maneuverability.

“Because I don’t serve at the pleasure of the mayor, I can be more vocal in my displeasure,” he said.

“If an elected public defender can have his budget cut, then the rest of the public defenders who aren’t elected would be easy prey,” said Aram James, a retired public defender from Santa Clara County.

The hero image is important, said James, to inspire public defenders to not accept budget cuts passively.

“The goal was to show that, no, we’re actually a courageous group of folks who are the last bastion between the state and the Constitution.”

James is an advocate for elected public defenders all over California to balance the scales of justice with the elected district attorneys. James, who has been a pal of Doug Minkler since junior high, collaborated with the Berkeley artist in writing the text for the poster.

Adachi said he could make the ordered cuts and lay off some attorneys. But the indigent defendants would still have the right to counsel, and he would have to hire private attorneys, costing the county much more, he said.

Adachi himself paid for the original artwork for the poster by Minkler, who has done artwork on justice themes for decades.
The office represents about 25,000 people annually who don’t have attorneys, Adachi said. That’s about 90 percent of those charged with crimes.

The office doesn’t control the number of clients it gets. The attorneys in the office usually have active caseloads of 60 or 70 felonies, and many more misdemeanors, at any given time, Adachi said.