San Francisco, Calif., Mayor London Breed March 11 announced her appointment of Indian American attorney Manohar ‘Mano’ Raju to head the Public Defender’s office.
“This is historic,” Asit Panwala, president of the South Asian Bar Association of Northern California, told India-West. He noted that Raju is the first South Asian American public defender in California, and may be the first South Asian American public defender in the nation.
Raju, coincidentally, recalled to this reporter that he had worked at India-West in 1992, serving as this publication’s copy editor as he simultaneously worked on his master’s degree in South Asian studies at UC Berkeley. He will have to run for election to the post this November.
“In many ways, public defense is civil rights work. It is the new frontier of the civil rights story in our country,” Raju told India-West shortly after his appointment was announced.
Raju — who has served in the San Francisco Public Defender’s office for 11 years — was appointed to the role following the Feb. 22 death of Jeff Adachi, who died unexpectedly at age 59 of a heart attack. “Jeff was a true visionary,” said Raju, adding that his former boss ardently advocated for criminal justice reform, and “spread the message about who our clients really are.”
“When he passed away, it was really a shock,” said the attorney, noting that Adachi had recruited him from the Contra Costa County, Calif. Public Defender’s office, where he had previously worked for seven years.
One of the issues Raju hopes to work on is addressing bias in juries. “It is fairly common for an African American man to be on trial with no African American jurors,” he said, adding that he hopes to develop a system in which jurors’ biases can be detected before they are selected to serve. Raju is the founding member of Public Defenders for Racial Justice.
In October, a new law will go into effect in California, abolishing bail for most suspects awaiting trial. Under the new law, those arrested and charged with a crime won't be putting up money or borrowing it from a bail bond agent to obtain their release. Instead, local courts will decide whom to keep in custody and whom to release while they await trial. Those decisions will be based on an algorithm created by the courts in each jurisdiction, explained NPR last year.
"Today, California reforms its bail system so that rich and poor alike are treated fairly," said former California Governor Jerry Brown Aug. 28, as he signed the bill known as the California Money Bail Reform Act.
Raju said he supports the reform. “A lot of people are pleading guilty to crimes they haven’t committed, to get out of jail because bail is too high. People with criminal records have a tough time getting jobs and housing,” he said, adding that he particularly wants to address bail reform in the juvenile justice system. “Kids whose brains aren’t fully developed yet are pleading guilty to stuff at a very tender age which will affect their entire lives,” he said, noting that juveniles have no right to a jury trial, facing only a judge.
“The San Francisco Public Defender’s office is considered one of the best in the country,” Panwala told India-West. “It aims to work out the ills of the population it represents,” he said, adding that Adachi left behind a rich legacy of supporting the poor and marginalized populations in San Francisco.
“Manohar has been in the trenches day in and day out. He will continue the tradition of strong advocacy that was set by Jeff Adachi,” said Panwala.
In a press statement March 11, Mayor Breed said: “Mano has demonstrated a commitment to justice and equity on behalf of not only his clients, but also the entire community that the Public Defender’s Office serves.”
“His advocacy for addressing systemic challenges to help those who need it most demonstrates that he will continue Jeff Adachi’s legacy of not only fighting in the courtroom, but also fighting to change policies and support innovative programs that make a difference in the community,” she said.
Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney in the Public Defender’s office, said in the press statement: “Mano has a keen intellect, exceptional trial skills, and an awareness of the importance of being anchored in the communities we serve, all of which are essential to leading and inspiring the office. He has my full support.”
“I am honored to accept Mayor Breed’s appointment to carry forward the visionary advocacy of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. Being a public defender is a spiritual calling for me — a calling inspired by the resilience of our clients and communities,” said Raju in the press statement.
Raju and his wife Asha Mehta — who works to foster leadership development in non-profit organizations — have an 8-year-old son, Asim. He received his undergraduate degree from Columbia University and his law degree from UC Berkeley.