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A history lesson for all attorneys

By Anthony P. Capozzi
President, State Bar of California

Anthony P. Capozzi, President, State Bar of California

At a recent bench-bar-media luncheon in Fresno, Superior Court Judge Dale Ikeda told a moving and heartfelt story of the World War II internment of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, mostly U.S. citizens from the West Coast. This sad chapter in our history did not close until the enactment and implementation of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The House Bill was numbered HR 442, in honor of the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team — an all Japanese-American unit that fought in Europe during World War II.

Shirm Hiraoka, a California attorney, was one of those Japanese-American heroes who served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Shirm was admitted to the State Bar in 1941 and recently retired after practicing law for more than 50 years.

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 9066, which authorized the establishment of military areas from which certain persons might be excluded as a security measure. As a result, the detainees were ordered to "assembly centers" and to "relocation centers" for more than three years.

Despite the relocation, the 442nd Regiment served honorably and heroically in World War II, becoming the most decorated military unit in United States history.

The Battle of the Gothic Line

The Gothic Line consisted of a mountain range in the Apennines in Italy that led to the Po Valley, Austria and Germany. For six months, two infantry divisions of the U.S. Army with 30,000 men were not able to break through enemy fortifications. The 442nd was called in.

Their plan was to scale the side of a mountain — 3,000 feet in the quiet and darkness of night. They climbed for eight hours and a number perished during the climb. At daybreak, they hit the enemy line and 2,500 men took key enemy positions which broke the Gothic Line in 32 minutes.

President Truman held a private review on the White House lawn for the 442nd Regiment, the only time a regiment has been so honored. Said Truman, "On behalf of America, I can't thank you enough. You have not only fought the enemy, you have fought prejudice and you have won."

Kazou Masuda and Ronald Reagan

Kazou Masuda was killed in action during World War II as a member of the 442nd Regiment and received the Distinguished Service Cross for his valor. When his body was returned home to California after the war, community sentiment was against his burial in a local cemetery because of his Japanese ancestry. A young captain in the public relations branch of the Army worked to assure that a proper burial took place.

Ronald Reagan, who later as president signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, spoke at the medal-pinning ceremony, eloquently observing, "Blood that has soaked into the sands of the beach is all of one color. America stands unique in the world, the only country not founded on race, but on a way — an 'ideal.'" He went on to stress that diversity was one of America's strengths.

The Korematsu Case

Fred Korematsu, an American citizen of Japanese descent, born and raised in San Leandro, refused to report to a relocation center. No question was raised about his loyalty to the United States, yet Mr. Korematsu was convicted of violating Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34.

In a 6 to 3 decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote: "Exclusion of those of Japanese origin was deemed necessary because of the presence of an unascertained number of disloyal members of the group, most of whom we have no doubt were loyal to this country. It was because we could not reject the finding of the military authorities that it was impossible to bring about an immediate segregation of the disloyal from the loyal."

Justices Murphy, Roberts and Jackson dissented. Justice Jackson stated, "Being an obvious racial discrimination, the exclusion order deprived all those within its scope of the equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment

. . . I dissent, therefore, from this legalization of racism. Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatsoever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States."

Coram Nobis Cases

A dedicated team of lawyers fought to have the criminal conviction of Fred Korematsu and a number of other Japanese-Americans overturned. Two attorneys, Dale Minami, a 1971 graduate of the Boalt Hall Law School at the University of California, Berkeley, the first president of the Asian Pacific Bar Association of California, and Donald Tamaki, also a graduate of Boalt Hall and former executive director of the Asian Law Caucus, worked diligently along with a number of other attorneys in getting the Korematsu case overturned.

Fresno attorney Shirm Hiraoka served honorably and heroically in World War II in spite of the intense prejudice and discrimination that pervaded our society at that time. Dale Minami and Donald Tamaki gave freely of their time years later to right the wrong that occurred in a very difficult time. These lawyers are to be highly commended and rightfully have earned the utmost respect of our legal community.


Presiding Justice James Ardaiz of the Fifth District Court of Appeal, noting that we now have the benefit of 50 years of hindsight since the Supreme Court decision, said the important point is that "you want your judges [and attorneys] to be able to stand up in those moments when the going is tough and the hue and cry of the populace is tumultuous and to adhere to the principles of law to which you have agreed. This is not always easy, but it must always be the ideal."

As attorneys privileged to practice law here in the state of California, we have the power to do many wonderful things, like ensuring the protections guaranteed by the Constitution remain inviolate.

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