In Korematsu Lecture, Judge Edward Chen examines the lessons of Korematsu v. US for today

In the 2021 Fred T. Korematsu Lecture, Judge Edward Chen of the Northern District of California returned to the case that gave the lecture series its name. As an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, Chen was part of the legal team that successfully challenged Fred Korematsu’s World War II-era conviction for violating the US government order that interned Japanese Americans. In his remarks on March 15, Chen traced the history of Korematsu v. United States and related cases—including Hirabayashi v. US, a US Supreme Court decision upholding a curfew for Japanese Americans—and discussed the lessons they offer in the continuing struggle for racial justice.

Man on bench
Fred Korematsu

Hosted by the Asian-Pacific American Law Students Association, the Korematsu Lecture series presents Asian American perspectives on the law and honors Asian Americans who have contributed to the development of the law.

When the Supreme Court upheld Korematsu’s conviction in 1944, Chen said, it accepted the government’s arguments that “military urgency” justified the detention of US citizens of Japanese ancestry. But, he recounted, decades later documents surfaced in the National Archives that showed that the claims of military necessity were unsupported and that government attorneys had suppressed this evidence. In 1983, federal district judge Marilyn Hall Patel granted Fred Korematsu’s petition for a writ of coram nobis to overturn his conviction.

“The courtroom that day was packed with hundreds of former internees and their families,” Chen recalled, “and you could feel the weight of history being lifted off their shoulders.”

Selected remarks:

Edward Chen: “Invited to speak in court by Judge Patel, Fred Korematsu addressed the court for the first time in 40 years.… ‘According to the Supreme Court decision regarding my case, being an American citizen was not enough. They say you have to look like one; otherwise, they say, you can’t tell the difference between a loyal and disloyal Americans. I thought that decision was wrong, and I still feel that way. As long as my record stands in federal court, any American citizen can be held in prison or concentration camps without a trial or hearing if they look like the enemy. Therefore I would like to see the government admit that they were wrong and to do something about it, so that this will never happen again to any American citizen of any race, creed, or color.’” 

Chen: “Today we witness the alarming escalation of hate crimes directed at Asian Americans blamed for the quote China virus pandemic. In the Bay Area, the community is reeling from the death just last week of an elderly Chinese man who died from injuries suffered from an unprovoked assault in Oakland’s Chinatown. Hate-inspired messaging is easily aroused, as Asian Americans have long been characterized as them, not us—perpetual foreigners who could never be full Americans, just as Justice [Harlan Fiske] Stone described Japanese-Americans in Hirabayashi.

Chen: “What if there had been a Japanese American sitting on the Supreme Court? Could the Supreme Court have made the sweeping statements about the inherent disloyalty of Japanese Americans, and why it’s dangerous to send your kids to Japanese language schools? I mean, it demonstrates a simple point that hopefully when you have courts that reflect the cross-section of our society, whether it’s demographically in terms of gender, in terms of race, in terms of socioeconomic background and other things, one would suspect that you would get an enriched deliberative process.” 

Posted April 6, 2021