Judge Kiyo Matsumoto delivers 11th annual Korematsu Lecture

For Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, seconds count. Born to second-generation Japanese American parents, she is also the second Asian Pacific American woman ever to serve as a federal district court judge. Delivering the 11th annual Korematsu Lecture on March 9, Matsumoto pointed out that, despite progress, only 17 Asian American Article III judges had ever been confirmed when she ascended to the bench in 2008.

Both of her parents and her grandparents were sent to internment camps during World War II, and Matsumoto’s mother and father freely shared their memories of that experience with their children. At the time of her parents’ internment, Matsumoto said, they were just a few years younger than Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, and Fred Korematsu. All three Japanese American petitioners took their challenges of the government’s wartime actions all the way to the Supreme Court, where they failed to prevail. Not until decades later were the convictions overturned through writs of coram nobis.

“As my parents recounted the prejudice and hysteria in their communities after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and their families’ losses and hardships,” Matsumoto said, “they consistently cautioned us to proceed in our lives without shame, bitterness, or resentment. Even when our government seemingly cast aside constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection, my parents somehow managed not to lose faith in the fundamental ideals upon which this country was founded.”

Matsumoto recalled her childhood in North Carolina, where “nobody knew quite what to make of Asian Americans. They didn’t know whether to categorize us as ‘colored’ or as ‘white.’ We grew up drinking out of ‘colored’ and ‘white’ water fountains.” Later, when the family returned to California for the first time since internment, Matsumoto’s parents had difficulty finding a home in a good school district because of anti-Asian prejudice, prompting them to support fair housing initiatives and other political causes.

When Matsumoto decided to pursue a legal career, she remembered her parents’ explanation that there were few Asian American lawyers to fight government policy at the time of the World War II internments. Matsumoto spent two decades as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and four years as a U.S. magistrate judge in the same district, before her appointment to the federal bench. She also taught the Governmental Civil Litigation Clinic and seminar as an adjunct professor at NYU Law.

Since her confirmation as an Article III judge, Matsumoto said, only two other Asian Americans have joined her on the federal bench. “There’s obviously much to be done,” she said, “and that’s evident in the labels that we continue to use—the first, or the second, or the only. That will change, I hope, at some point in the near future for all people who have not been part of this process, who have not had an active role on the bench, in our government, in the arts, in the sciences, in commerce. Truly, the diversity of our society should be reflected in all of those places.”

Posted on March 17, 2010