Judge Denny Chin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit illuminated the legal history of Asian Americans in the 12th annual Korematsu Lecture, “Great Asian-American Trials,” on March 8.

“Asian Americans have played a prominent role in American legal history,” said Chin. “Even when you take constitutional law in your first year of law school, you learn about some of the important legal developments involving Asian Americans.” He enumerated the most famous examples, including the Chinese Exclusion Act, Yick Wo v. Hopkins, U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark, Takao Ozawa v. U.S., and Korematsu v. U.S.

Chin, a student of notable trials in U.S. history, has performed a number of trial reenactments with the Asian American Bar Association of New York. Based on the original trial transcripts, the reenactments incorporate transcript excerpts in hour-long “dramatic theatrical presentations” with narration and historic photographs. Chin and his colleagues have put on reenactments for the last four years at the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association’s annual convention.

The endeavor is important, Chin asserted, because many of the issues invoked by the trials—such as balancing civil liberties against national security and wartime necessity—continue to resonate today, making the history of the proceedings relevant to new generations of lawyers.

In his lecture, Chin discussed four trials that he has helped to reenact. The first, the prosecution of Minori Yasui in 1942 for defying a military-ordered curfew imposed on all West Coast residents of Japanese descent during World War II, had been reenacted at NYU Law in 2009 for that year’s Korematsu Lecture.

Chin next turned to the multiple trials for the bias-motivated beating death of Vincent Chin in 1982. When the defendants did not even receive jail time, the Asian-American community rallied for justice, leading to altered sentencing procedures and the increased application of civil rights laws to Asian Americans.

Chin also analyzed the Massie trials, which originated when the wife of a U.S. Navy officer accused five native Hawaiians of raping her in 1931. After the rape trial ended with a deadlocked jury, the officer and three others kidnapped and killed one of the defendants, leading to another trial in which the sentences handed down were later commuted by Hawaii’s territorial governor.

Finally, Chin detailed the trial of Iva Toguri D’Aquino, who was convicted of treason in 1949 for allegedly broadcasting anti-American propaganda over Radio Tokyo during World War II under the notorious moniker “Tokyo Rose.” After proof emerged decades later of perjured testimony, Gerald Ford pardoned D’Aquino on the last full day of his presidency.

“The arc of justice sometimes bends under the pressure of national crisis,” said Chin. “Sometimes the system just does not work well…. There has been a double standard applied to Asian Americans.... Trial lawyers sometimes talk in terms of wins and losses. Here, the record was abysmal.... If the need ever arises again, we must do better.”

Posted on March 23, 2011