Landmark Korematsu Case Re-Enacted At Riverside Appeals Court

The following was written by Manzanar Committee member Joyce Okazaki.


RIVERSIDE, CA — On August 13, 2009, an overflow crowd gathered at the Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District in Riverside, which held its first in a series of reenactments in honor of the 80th anniversary of the Court and to honor the 100th birthday of retired Associate Justice John G. Gabbert. The inaugural historic oral argument was Korematsu v. United States.

Fred Korematsu, a Nisei, challenged the removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from three West Coast States and “placing” them in “relocation” camps (President Franklin D. Roosevelt called them “concentration camps”). Korematsu defied the order, refusing to leave his home in Oakland, California.

Korematsu was eventually discovered and was arrested. He was sentenced to five years probation and was sent to the Topaz concentration camp.

During his trial, Ernest Besig of the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union asked Korematsu if he would like to be a test case and file a law suit. Korematsu agreed. His lawsuit argued that his constitutional rights had been violated and he appealed his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction in 1944. The decisions were vacated in 1984 in the historic coram nobis cases, but were not overturned, as a lower court cannot overturn a decision by the US Supreme Court.

Korematsu passed away at age 86 in 2005.

At the reenactment, oral arguments were presented by two constitutional scholars, Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law, and John C. Eastman, Dean of the Chapman University School of Law.

Chemerinsky presented argument for Korematsu, stating that decisions should not be made and orders should not be given solely on the basis of race and without due process. Eastman argued that this was a case of military necessity to prevent an invasion, espionage, and sabotage from within the United States, because of the allegiance the people were perceived to have toward the enemy country.

Presiding Justice Manual A. Ramirez and the justices of Division 2, along with Retired Justice Gabbert, sat en banc (on the bench) to make a very impressive scene. They interrupted the oral arguments at critical times to question either side. Chemerinsky gave the closing argument, then decision for the United States was read by retired Justice Gabbert. Other readings in dissent were given by the other justices on the bench. One of the touching readings was Justice Betty A. Richli, reading the words of Justice Franklin Murphy, which were very moving, powerful, and profound.

Following the reading of the decision and dissenting opinions, both Chemerinsky and Eastman discussed the case and the War Powers Act, where people were detained under the guise of national security to curtail civil rights, although the grounds used were narrower.

“It is never good to undermine the Constitution,” said Chemerinsky.

Presiding Justice Ramirez introduced the guest speakers starting with Fred Korematsu’s daughter, Karen Korematsu-Haigh, who told the audience that she was unaware of her father’s story until she was in high school when she heard about it from a friend who read a book for Social Science class assignment.

Her friend asked if this was a relative of hers. Karen didn’t know, so when she went home she asked her parents about this and was told the story. She said that her father believed very strongly in the United States Constitution and that it was unconstitutional for the government to incarcerate persons of Japanese ancestry without criminal charges or due process. Then she read a moving piece by her father, which brought many in the courtroom to tears, including me.

Judge Ben T. Kayashima of the San Bernardino County Superior Court spoke of his time in the Poston, Arizona camp, and his first train ride with the windows blacked out. Being an eleven-year-old boy, playing was important and at Poston, he played every day, free from daily chores. He also said that when it came time for meals, he went to the mess hall, where the prisoners were served their meals three times a day, with his friends, not his family. This led in many cases to the breakdown of family life in camp.

George Maeda spoke of his time in Manzanar as a nine-year-old boy, remembering the first days there when he got the mattress filled with hay and had to sleep on cots with all seven members of his family in one 25-foot-by-20-foot room. Because Maeda’s father was the head of Japanese language school, he was arrested shortly after December 7, 1941, but was released within a few weeks after being cleared.

After Justice Ramirez’ closing remarks in which he spoke of the recent passing of Judge Robert Takasugi, the first Japanese American appointed to the Federal bench, and the artwork of Manzanar sketched by Ed Murdy. He also introduced Henry Fukuhara, age 96, the watercolorist who painted scenes of Manzanar where he was incarcerated, who was present in the courtroom.

Justice Ramirez also mentioned the story of those escaping under the cover of darkness to go fishing in nearby rivers and the prisoner who received her degree from the University of California, Berkeley after 67 years.

“Court decisions that fell short of upholding the Constitution should be remembered so that they may be better avoided in the future,” said Justice Ramirez.

The views expressed in this story are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.


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