Gordon Hirabayashi was 24 years old the first time he challenged the United States Supreme Court. It was after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and President Roosevelt had just ordered the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-American people living on the West Coast. A curfew had been imposed on all people of Japanese descent.
Hirabayashi, a student at the University of Washington at the time, openly defied the curfew and turned himself into the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The American Civil Liberties Union took up his case and he eventually reached the highest court in the country where he argued that a curfew targeting members of a minority group was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court, however, ruled against him unanimously in 1942.
Around the same time, Min Yasui was fighting the same battle in Portland, Ore. while Fred Korematsu, a 22-year-old welder from California, was challenging the constitutionality of Japanese-American incarceration. All three of them were convicted. The Supreme Court held that the need to protect the country outweighed the individual rights of Americans of Japanese descent, regardless of their citizenship.
It wasn’t until four decades later in the 1980s that Yasui, Hirabayashi and Korematsu challenged these convictions by filing for a writ of error coram nobis, a legal order which allows a court to correct its original conviction if a fundamental error was discovered after the fact. Their convictions were vacated and the court admitted to wrongdoing. It was considered a huge success.
Years later, these Supreme Court cases have become symbolic. Hundreds gathered in Pigott Auditorium just last week to hear about them and to understand why they remain relevant to this day.
Lawyers, professors and community members attended “The Japanese American Incarceration: Civil Liberties and Upholding the Rule of Law, Then and Now,” an event sponsored by the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality and the Federal Bar Association of the Western District of Washington, among other groups.
Lorraine Bannai, a professor of lawyering skills at Seattle University and director of the Korematsu Center, was the first to speak on stage. She was followed by Robert Chang, the center’s executive director, and Karen Korematsu, founder and executive director of the Korematsu Institute and the daughter of the late Fred Korematsu.
“Why was this important?” Bannai asked the audience. “Well, first, the coram nobis cases demonstrated that the wartime incarceration could only have been the result of racism. Japanese suffered intangible, enduring injury when they were forced from their homes, stripped of their civil rights and subjected to the harshness and indignity of imprisonment because of their race.”
Bannai, among other speakers and several audience members, was on the coram nobis legal team that represented Korematsu in the 1980s. Lawyers from Hirabayashi and Yasui’s legal teams were there as well, not to mention Judge Marilyn Patel who presided over Korematsu’s coram nobis case in 1983. Patel spoke about the events leading up to her decision to overturn the original conviction.
“What is disturbing is that the majority was all too willing to differ to the prerogative of the executive and the notion of military necessity without looking behind it,” Patel said.
Other minority groups suffered similar treatment, Robert Chang explained. He alluded to Chinese exclusion laws from the late 19th century, drawing a connection to modern day events like President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which restricted immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.
“When we think about this episode in history, it’s so important not to think that it’s just about Japanese-Americans or Asian immigrants,” Chang said. “It is so much broader in terms of understanding the present-day relevance.”
The event transitioned into a smaller group after lunch. Attendants, most them lawyers, made their way to a classroom in Sullivan Hall to hear from Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson along with members of Gordon Hirabayashi’s coram nobis team.
Ferguson, whose name was in headlines after he sued the White House administration on multiple occasions, explained that President Roosevelt’s decision to incarcerate people of Japanese descent was extremely popular among voters. Executive Order 13769, or the “Immigration Ban,” which temporarily halted all immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, was also popular with the public.
“Have we learned nothing?” Ferguson asked a room of lawyers. “It’s easy to lose sight of the bedrock principles that guide us as a people when there is a stress in our society, but we have to stay true to that…this is not ancient history. It’s a living history.”
Nick may be reached at