SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Friends and colleagues were in mourning Saturday after learning of the death of longtime San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi (CBS)

Adachi, who was 59, was having dinner with a friend in North Beach on Friday night when he began to have trouble breathing, according to Katy St. Clair, spokeswoman for the public defender’s office.

Emergency crews were able to recover a pulse but Adachi later died at the hospital, St. Clair said Saturday.

Adachi, who started in 1987 as deputy public defender and went on to become a five-time elected public defender for the city, is survived by his wife Mutsuko and daughter Lauren. A cause of death has not been released.

Colleagues were devastated by news of Adachi’s death and described him as fearless.

“(Jeff Adachi) cared more about people and how he conducted himself than just being a regular lawyer and that’s what made him so special,” said former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown on Saturday.

“(Adachi) built one of the finest public law offices in the country. It’s not really a matter of dispute. I don’t think anyone would question that,” said Matt Gonzalez, the public defender office’s chief attorney and former mayoral candidate. “He believed very much that, whether or not you were rich or poor, you should have access to justice.”

“For over 20 years, Jeff was a mentor, a friend, an inspiration and a true leader — always bringing out the best in each and every one of us,” said Niki Solis, San Francisco deputy public defender.

Adachi brought in much-needed technology to the office, along with increased numbers of support staff such as paralegals, investigators, and social workers, according to a release from the public defender’s office.

“Jeff knew how many public defender offices across the country were struggling with high caseloads, no resources, and low morale, and he set a goal to not only overcome that here, but to create an agency that would become a guiding light for all other offices around the country,” according to a release from the public defender’s office.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed said Adachi “always stood up for those who didn’t have a voice, have been ignored and overlooked, and who needed a real champion.”

In a statement, Breed extended her condolences to Adachi’s family and said the city had lost a dedicated public servant, and communities had lost a champion.

“He was committed not only to the fight for justice in the courtroom, but he was also a relentless advocate for criminal justice reform, Breed said.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) said she admired Adachi and just spoke with him last week.

“I was shocked and deeply saddened last night to learn of the passing of my friend Jeff Adachi,” Harris said in statement on Saturday.

“Jeff was a national leader in advocating for the rights of the accused and due process, an outspoken fighter for justice and police accountability, and a fierce and talented advocate for his clients.

Presiding San Francisco Superior Court Judge Garrett L. Wong issued a statement late Friday on behalf of the court on Adachi’s death.

“Public Defender Jeff Adachi was a tireless advocate for all San Franciscans and passionate in his pursuit of justice in our City,” Wong said.

“This truly is a sad day for all who benefited from his ardent pursuit of justice. On behalf of the Court, we are saddened by Mr. Adachi’s passing and extend our deepest condolences to his family, co-workers and all who worked closely with him to achieve equality, justice and fair treatment for every defendant in our justice system.”

Adachi was first elected in March 2002 as public defender in San Francisco. He was also elected in August 2016 to a three-year term on the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Board of Directors.

He received many local, state and national awards, including the Society of Professional Journalist’s Public Official Award, American Bar Association Hodson Award for Public Service, SPUR Good Government Award, and California Public Defender’s Association Program of the Year Award, according to the defense lawyers’ association.

Adachi graduated from Hastings College of the Law in 1985 and attended undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley.

It’s not clear who will ultimately replace Adachi. On an interim basis, chief attorney Matt Gonzalez will run the office.

© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. KPIX 5 correspondent Devin Fehely and Bay City News Service contributed to this report

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