The California Supreme Court unanimously granted Sei Fujii honorary posthumous membership in the State Bar of California on May 24, 2017. Led by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the high court declared, “despite being formally excluded from joining the ranks of the legal profession throughout his life, Fujii spent much of his career using the courts to advance the rule of law in California.”
Sei Fujii, a University of Southern California Law School graduate in 1911, was denied State Bar of California membership and could not become a licensed attorney because he was not an American citizen. Discriminatory laws at that time prohibited all Asians from becoming U.S. naturalized citizens. Undeterred, he teamed with J. Marion Wright, USC classmate and civil rights attorney, to help Japanese immigrants and the community with legal services for forty years. His most significant legal victory was in 1952 in Fujii v. California when the California Supreme Court invalidated the California Alien Land Laws of 1913 and 1920 that had prohibited Japanese farmers from owning agricultural property or contracting long-term leases.
The Japanese American Bar Association and the Little Tokyo Historical Society (LTHS) jointly filed the petition with the California Supreme Court on January 23, 2017 with pro bono attorneys Sidney Kanazawa and Kim Nakamaru of the legal firm of McGuireWoods LLP and Jeffrey Gee Chin and Carole Fujita, directors of LTHS, being the primary participants.
To commemorate this major achievement, LTHS sponsored a celebration with food and champagne for toasts at the Far Bar in Little Tokyo on Aug. 13. Primary speakers were attorney Kanazawa, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Bruce G. Iwasaki, actor Chris Tashima, and film director Chin. Distinguished guests included San Francisco attorney Adam Engelskirchen, great-grandson of J. Marion Wright, and attorney Coralie Kupfer, daughter of attorney Owen Kupfer, who worked with Wright and Fujii on the victorious U.S. Supreme Court case in 1928 that permitted the construction of the Boyle Heights-based Japanese Hospital of Los Angeles and the overturning of the California Alien Land Laws.
Tashima played Fujii in “Lil Tokyo Reporter,” a film produced by LTHS to educate the public about Fujii’s accomplishments, which were not widely known even within the Japanese American community.
Receiving honorary posthumous membership in the State Bar of California was Sei Fujii’s final legal victory.