Korematsu Lecture reenacts historical trial

Anyone who expected to see a single speaker behind a lectern at the 10th annual Korematsu Lecture on March 10 would have been surprised to find that, instead, a constitutional trial was underway. In “The Trial of Minoru Yasui: The Administration of Justice in a Time of War,” both law students and members of the Asian American Bar Association of New York recreated the courtroom proceedings in which Yasui, a Japanese-American lawyer, challenged Public Proclamation No. 3, a military-ordered 8:00 p.m. curfew imposed on all West Coast residents of Japanese descent.

On March 28, 1942, the first night that the curfew was in effect, Yasui wandered the streets of Portland, Oregon, for three hours, demanding unsuccessfully to be arrested before finally going to a police station, where he was taken into custody. Intent on challenging the military order, Yasui found himself in federal court before Judge James Alger Fee less than three months later. Yasui’s lawyer argued that the curfew, which applied to those of Japanese extraction regardless of citizenship but only to non-citizen residents of German and Italian origin, was unconstitutional. While awaiting Fee’s verdict, Yasui was sent to Minidoka Relocation Center, an internment camp in Idaho that lacked running water and a sewer system.

In November, Yasui returned to Portland for the judge’s decision. Fee ruled that the curfew was unconstitutional when applied to American citizens, but also determined that Yasui had forfeited his citizenship through his previous work for the Japanese consulate in Chicago—even though Yasui had resigned from his position there the day after Pearl Harbor. Fee handed down the maximum sentence: a $5,000 fine and one year in jail.

Yasui spent the next nine months in solitary confinement in a small, windowless cell. The following year, the Supreme Court reversed Fee’s ruling. It was, however, a Pyrrhic victory for Yasui: While the opinion asserted that Yasui had not renounced his citizenship, it also stated that the curfew could be applied to citizens like Yasui. Upon his release from jail, Yasui was returned to Minidoka until 1944, when he was once again free. Yasui’s conviction stood for four decades until Oregon’s federal district court granted his writ of coram nobis, vacating the conviction.

Judge Denny Chin of the Southern District of New York, currently presiding over United States v. Bernard L. Madoff, was instrumental in creating the reenactment of Yasui v. United States. Chin noted after the reenactment's conclusion that many of the civil liberties issues raised by Yasui remain relevant. Pointing out that the most notorious Supreme Court case involving Japanese-American internment, Korematsu v. United States, has never been overturned, attorney Vincent Chang, who portrayed the lead prosecutor in the Yasui trial reenactment, called Korematsu “part of a continuum of American history that spans from the Alien and Sedition Acts at the turn of the 19th century to Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, and now the PATRIOT Act and Guantánamo.”

Read the Supreme Court's opinion in Yasui v. United States