(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on May 19, 2010.)
In 1942, my father, Fred Korematsu, went to jail for refusing to obey the World War II internment order.
His case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in 1944, that there was a “military necessity” to incarcerate 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent.
It took 40 years for the Federal court to overturn my father’s unjust conviction.
Today, Magistrate Judge Edward Milton Chen, one of the attorneys who successfully fought to bring justice to my father has been nominated by President Barack Obama to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District. This is the same court that upheld my father’s conviction four decades ago.
As I am now carrying on my father’s legacy, I feel compelled to speak out strongly in favor of this excellent jurist, as I know my father would have done. My father’s belief in our Constitution was unwavering, even when he was treated unfairly. Like my father, Judge Chen is adamant about upholding the Constitution, without bias or prejudice.
My father’s wartime conviction and the uprooting and internment of his entire community were so painful that he did not speak about his experience for many years. I only learned about his case when I was a junior in high school.
In 1982 when documents were discovered in the federal government’s own files that showed the government had consciously suppressed evidence that there was no threat of sabotage or espionage from the Japanese American community, my father agreed to reopen his case. Judge Chen was on the legal team that represented my father.
Judge Marilyn Hall Patel’s federal courtroom in San Francisco was packed with supporters. Many were former internees. My father asked to address the court. He said, “As an American citizen being put through this shame and embarrassment and also all Japanese Americans who were escorted to concentration camps, suffered the same embarrassment, we can never forget this incident as long as we live…As long as my record stands in federal court, any American citizen can be held in prison or concentration camps without a trial or a hearing. Therefore, I would like to see the government admit that they were wrong and do something about it so this will never happen again to any American citizen of any race, creed or color.”
When Judge Patel issued her decision, the crowd erupted with tears of joy. My father embraced his family and then shook hands with the legal team that had assiduously pursued his case.
Despite his trials, my father never lost faith in his country. In the years after Judge Patel’s ruling, this quiet man spoke tirelessly about the internment, constitutional rights, and his pursuit of justice. He crisscrossed the country talking to high school students, university law schools and community organizations. He was especially active after 9/11 – and was one of the very first people to speak out against sacrificing civil liberties in the name of national security. He reminded us of Judge Patel’s prescient statement that his case was “a constant caution that in times of war…our institutions must be vigilant in protecting constitutional guarantees.”
At my father’s memorial service, attendees from all walks of life and backgrounds were asked to sing one of his favorite songs, the national hymn “America, the Beautiful.”
Judge Chen was there. At first, he told us, he had mixed feelings about the song, remembering the many years my father and other Japanese Americans had to live with the stigma of their unjust incarceration. But then Judge Chen recalls that he was moved to tears because, as he says, my father was a living example of the patriotism embodied in this hymn.
Like my father, Judge Chen has embraced what is best about America, its promise of freedom, justice and equality for all. And like my father, he has not flinched when confronted with America’s imperfections. Rather, he has sought justice in the rule of law, recognizing that when our constitutional rights and principles are challenged, we can—and must—seek justice in our judicial system.
Judge Chen has said that his greatest privilege was the opportunity to be part of the legal team that represented my father in his lawsuit to overturn his conviction. One of my family’s greatest privileges will be to witness this courageous, principled and compassionate man become the first Asian American judge on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.