Dale Minami Receives 2019 ABA Medal, the Association’s Highest Honor

UPDATE (8/13/2019): Text of Dale’s acceptance speech added to this post.

The American Bar Association honored Minami Tamaki LLP Senior Counsel Dale Minami, a lifelong champion of the civil rights of Asian Pacific Americans and other people of color, with the ABA Medal — the association’s highest honor — on August 10, 2019, at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis during the ABA Annual Meeting.

See photos on Facebook.

Minami is best known for leading the legal team that overturned the conviction of Fred Korematsu, an American of Japanese descent who was arrested for refusing to enter an incarceration center in 1942. Korematsu’s case led to the historic challenge of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II in the case Korematsu v. United States.

The ABA Medal recognizes exceptionally distinguished service by a lawyer or lawyers to the cause of American jurisprudence. Previous recipients of the ABA Medal include: Bryan A. Stevenson (2018), Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (2010), and Justice Thurgood Marshall (1992).

Minami is the first Asian American to receive the award in its 90-year history.

“Dale Minami has devoted a lifetime to breaking down stereotypes and advocating for Asian Pacific Americans,” ABA President Bob Carlson said. “His work in overturning Korematsu is legal legend, but it is just one of many instances in his career where he has fought for the protection of the rights of people who have been discriminated against. His determination and commitment to the rule of law has resulted in countless people receiving justice.”

Minami was key to obtaining judicial recognition that the evacuation and incarceration of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II was unjust and illegal. Although the Supreme Court in 1944 upheld the constitutionality of the incarceration in Korematsu v. United States, Minami and his team successfully challenged that ruling 40 years later.

With documents discovered in 1981 from the National Archives that demonstrated that government officials knowingly used false evidence to justify its exclusion order, Minami assembled the legal team that petitioned the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to vacate the conviction of Korematsu and was the Coordinating Attorney initially for two other challenges to the military orders filed by Minoru Yasui in Portland and Gordon Hirabayashi in Seattle.  Serving as lead counsel for Korematsu in 1983, Minami and his team prevailed in voiding the conviction while the legal teams for Hirabayashi and Yasui overturned their convictions in separate cases.

In 2017, Minami and other attorneys from the Korematsu, Hirabayashi, and Yasui legal teams joined the legal team led by the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality and Akin Gump LLP, representing the adult children of Korematsu, Hirabayashi, and Yasui in filing an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court review of the government’s travel ban, which resulted in the Supreme Court’s explicit repudiation of the 1944 Korematsu decision via its review of Trump v. Hawaii.

“As an attorney in a small minority-owned law firm, I was a bit surprised when Bob Carlson, the president of the ABA, even called me, then astonished when he informed me that I was chosen as the ABA Medal recipient,” Minami said.  “Given the list of illustrious past awardees, I now just think it is surreal, yet still a testament to the ABA’s recognition of Asian Pacific American attorneys as integral members of the ABA and legal profession. I am grateful.”

Remarks by Dale Minami, Recipient of the ABA Medal, and Introduction by Bob Carlson, President, American Bar Association, on August 10, 2019, in San Francisco

Bob Carlson:

As President of the American Bar Association, I am asked all the time about what my favorite part of the job is and it’s hard to pinpoint a single thing, but I think my favorite response is to note my complete pride and joy in witnessing principled lawyers who work diligently to improve our profession, our justice system, and our country.

I am proud to be part of a profession that stands up for equal justice for all, protects judicial independence and fights for a vibrant, diverse legal profession around the world and at home. I’ve been privileged to see volunteers and staff helping asylum seekers at the border and assisting victims of natural disasters around the country.

I’ve been humbled to witness the lengths lawyers have gone to help their colleagues suffering from addiction, depression, and other forms of mental illness. I was especially proud when the American Bar Association and state and local bar associations worked, spoke out in defense of a free press for Law Day and when the ABA teamed with the Clooney Foundation for Justice to create TrialWatch to monitor and shine a light on trials around the world where human rights violations are a concern.

I believe we are seeing a renaissance of appreciation for justice and the role lawyers play to preserve our liberties. And I am grateful that the American Bar Association is reinvigorating itself as a membership organization that educates, that connects, and that inspires all lawyers. We stand for our principles and because of the ABA, we do not stand alone.

It is now my honor to introduce the recipient of the 2019 ABA Medal. The ABA Medal is the highest award presented by our association. It is given only in years when our board of governors determines a nominee has provided exceptional and distinguished service to the law and the legal profession.

Today’s recipient, Dale Minami, joins legendary Justices of the United States Supreme Court, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Felix Frankfurter, Thurgood Marshall, William J. Brennan, Jr., Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Other recipients have included Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, human rights activist Father Robert Drinan, and other prominent attorneys.

Dale Minami has devoted a lifetime to breaking down stereotypes and advocating for Asian Pacific Americans. His work in overturning the Supreme Court’s Korematsu decision is legal legend, but it is just one of many instances in his career where he has fought for the protection of the rights of people who have faced discrimination. His determination and commitment to the rule of law has resulted in countless people receiving justice.

Mr. Minami was key in obtaining judicial recognition that the evacuation and incarceration of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II was unjust and illegal. Although the Supreme Court in 1944 upheld the constitutionality of the internment in Korematsu v. United States, Minami and his team successfully challenged that ruling 40 years later.

In 2017, Minami, representing the adult children of Fred Korematsu, filed an amicus brief in the United States Supreme Court to review the government’s travel ban, which resulted in the court’s explicit repudiation of the 1944 Korematsu decision in its review of Trump v. Hawaii.

Minami’s dedication to civil rights extends far beyond the Korematsu victory. Early in his career, he served as legal lead counsel in numerous landmark cases involving the rights of Asian Pacific Americans:  Chan v. Scott, a class action lawsuit against the San Francisco Police Department to enjoin the unconstitutional arrests and detention of young Asian Americans; United Filipinos for Affirmative Action v. California Blue Shield, the first class action employment lawsuit brought by Asian Pacific Americans on behalf of Asian Pacific Americans; Spokane JACL v. Washington State University, a class action on behalf of Asian Pacific Americans to establish an Asian American studies program at Washington State University; and Nakanishi v. UCLA, a successful claim for unfair denial of tenure after several hearings and widespread publicity over discrimination in academia.

Mr. Minami worked with others in the Asian community to form some of the organizations that are still powerhouses for Asian civil rights. He was a co-founder of the Asian Law Caucus, the first community interest law firm serving Asian Pacific Americans in this country; a co-founder of the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay area, the first Asian American Bar Association in the United States; and original incorporator of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Asian Pacific Bar of California, and the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans, one of the nation’s first political action committees focused on Asian American candidates and issues.

Mr. Minami has also been involved in the judicial appointment process and in establishing or influencing public policy and legislation. President Bill Clinton appointed him as chair of the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund in 1996. He has served as a member of the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission and as chair of the California Attorney General’s Asian Pacific Advisory Committee, advising the state’s attorney general on key issues.

He has also served as a commissioner on the State Bar’s Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation and on Senator Barbara Boxer’s judicial screening committee, which made recommendations for federal judicial appointments. Mr. Minami received a BA in Political Science from the University of Southern California and his JD from University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law.

It is my honor and my privilege on behalf of the American Bar Association to present the 2019 ABA Medal to Dale Minami.

Dale Minami:    

President Carlson, thank you for that wonderfully kind introduction. I very much appreciate it. It’s so nice to be here to see so many  longtime friends, delegates of the ABA and so many colleagues and I’m especially happy to be here today to see members of my family, including my wife Ai Mori, who’s an attorney with the California First District Court of Appeal, my two daughters, Lena and Ellie, not in that order of age and this family have taught me so much about profound love and also great patience as well.

So I’m very happy to be here. I’d like to thank of course the ABA, the Board of Governors and friends of mine on that board including Judge Eileen Kato and Michele Wong Krause. And as well, I’d like to thank Bob Carlson, the president, not just for his presidency, but his leadership.

I didn’t understand what this award was about at first, and when I got a call from President Carlson, I had never received a call from an ABA President. I thought somehow I messed up my continuing education requirement, but when he talked to me and he explained that this is an award, I thought, “Wow, this is pretty cool.”

But I didn’t understand the significance, I didn’t grasp it until I saw the list of former awardees, and that list is just a veritable list of giants in American jurisprudence. And I also found out later as I went through the next weeks what the significance was, as friends and family and colleagues congratulated me.  I realized this is not just an individual award, this is an award that recognizes an entire Asian Pacific American community.

And that’s the significance of this award because we’ve been very invisible by standards in the American consciousness. The race issues are black and white, and rarely do Asian Americans get noted, although Latinx now do get recognized. So this type of recognition is very, very important for us, so we’re not invisible anymore. As you could look around, we are certainly not.

My grandparents immigrated from southern Japan in the 1900s. They came here like a lot of immigrants, seeking a better life, seeking opportunities for their children. But they faced a wall of laws, denying them the chance to be citizens, denying them from certain occupations. They couldn’t own land, they couldn’t intermarry. And they came at a time just after the first Exclusion Act against an ethnic minority, which is the Chinese Americans, was enacted in 1882 and they came just before the second immigration ban occurred against Asians and Japanese in 1924.

My parents were born here. They’re second generation, called Nisei, and they were thoroughly Americanized. They were on their path to the American Dream until World War II happened. And their lives were cruelly and crudely interrupted by the incarceration of 120,000 of Japanese Americans, which included our family, our friends, my then new one-year-old brother.

They were then sent to these nether reaches of this country. But before they went, they had to live in the filthy horse stalls of Santa Anita Racetrack. And it was the only time I saw my mother cry, when she recounted that terrible experience of having to live under those conditions. They were transported then across the country to the swamplands of rural Arkansas, where they lived within indefinite confinement in dismal conditions as well.

But I think the greatest damage was the humiliation and the degrading of their citizenship, just like one of the greatest deprivations was their loss of freedom The Japanese Americans [who were incarcerated], two-thirds of them were American citizens. They were denied any due process rights. They did not have a right to an attorney. They did not have a right to trial. They did not have the right to notice of their charges and so they were sent without any of these constitutional liberties, even though most of them were citizens. Their crime was racial ancestry. The justification was military necessity.

They returned home to Los Angeles to rebuild their shattered lives and were deeply, deeply shamed. They never talked about those experiences to their children. My father became a gardener. It was the only job he could get at the time. I was born at the “Japanese Hospital” as they called it at the time in East Los Angeles because it was the only hospital that admitted Japanese doctors.  We lived in a garage for eight months with another family because we couldn’t get in into our home.

I was the third of three boys and the older son, Roland, Dr. Roland Minami, became a dentist. Then he became a doctor and we were very happy when he finished his education, but he was one of the kindest persons I’ve ever known and he taught me how to think, he taught me how to be curious about so many things.

My second brother Neil became a coach and a teacher, and he kicked my butt regularly, although a lot of people thought I deserved it, I’m not sure about that. But each dutifully got married, dutifully had two children, a boy and a girl, but the third son was not quite so dutiful. He broke things. He argued with everybody. He ran away a lot, usually just around the corner. But with the advantage of maturity, hindsight and introspection, I realize that those minor acts of rebellion were not my fault.

I was predisposed genetically and environmentally to act that way, but that rebelliousness may be the source of my interest in the civil rights movements, the movement in the ‘50s that I used to see on TV and I saw these water cannons aimed at African American demonstrators. I saw dogs sicced on peaceful protesters who were simply trying to get a bite to eat, and that same type of imagery brought to mind the 1965 Watts riots. They call it South Central now, but in 1965 it seemed like half of L.A. was burning down out of black rage for protesting inequality. Those events, those images, made a huge impression on me and I carry them with me today.

I guess being a little bit insubordinate or rebellious, I chose the most rebellious law school I could find. So I decided to go to UC “Berserkley.” And virtually the same day when I walked on campus, another rebellion occurred.

It was the Third World Strike that is being celebrated this year as a 50th anniversary. It was a movement by students at San Francisco State then Berkeley, then went across the country to challenge the non-white narrative of people of color being bystanders, supernumeraries in the entire history of this country.

And that made a great impression on me because it was led by African Americans, Latinx, and Native Americans. And to them, we owe a great debt as all Americans because they helped us move forward in the entire civil rights movement to learn about ourselves, to be inspired like I was, to demand equal rights, to stand up and speak out against injustice.

And while I was in law school, I read Korematsu v. United States, Hirabayashi v. United States, and Yasui v. United States, three men who challenged the military order singling out Japanese Americans. I thought those decisions were just terrible decisions. And I think the problem the Supreme Court had with those decisions in 1943 and 1944 during the time of World War II was there was simply no evidence, no concrete evidence to support the theory of the government that Japanese Americans were disloyal and dangerous.

In fact, there was so little evidence, no expert witness testimony, no testimony in the record, no arrests of any Japanese American for committing sabotage.  So, the government had to concoct a very flimsy theory about the justification and that theory was because of their peculiar ethnic characteristics of Japanese Americans predisposed them to disloyalty and therefore made them dangerous. And the court, in one of the greatest failures, abdicated its responsibility as an independent inquirer of the evidence, upheld the military orders and failed to exercise its duty, I feel, to investigate and they ceded complete deference to the president.

After law school, I helped start the Asian Law Caucus, which still exists today, and our mission was to empower the Asian Pacific American community to use the law as a sword and a shield to do so. It was a nonprofit community interest law firm, and from that nonprofit law firm, we opened a “nonprofit private practice.” We did not intend to do that, of course, but we tried to balance doing good and doing well. Unfortunately or fortunately, we did a lot more good than we did well, but we survived for 44 years and we survived with the same kind of values and dedication to social justice, in large part because I had such wonderful partners, the early ones, Don Tamaki and Minette Kwok who are here today.

The newer partners, Mark Fong, Sean Tamura-Sato, Olivia Lee, our associates are here along with our administrators, Gail Lang, who’s amazing, and Shila Narottam, who’s been with us a long time—they have held together that culture for all these years. And for them, I’m very grateful.

In 1982, Korematsu came back to us, the case and the man. A law professor and a lawyer discovered evidence that the government had altered, suppressed and destroyed critical evidence in the Hirabayashi, Korematsu, and Yasui cases, which contradicted the government’s claim of disloyalty and danger in the 1943 and 1944 cases.

And he called me up and said, “You know, I’d like to reopen these cases.” And I thought, “Well, are these guys still alive?” And of course, he said they were. I found them in a phone book, which I had to explain earlier in another panel what a phone book was to some of these folks. And he’s here today, the person who found that evidence and he became part of our legal team, Peter Irons.

Many of the other members of that remarkable team who are here today, I’d like to just name, Robert Rusky, Karen Kai, Professor Lorraine Bannai, Don Tamaki, Peter Irons is here as well, Dennis Hayashi, and from Seattle, Rod Kawakami, who became the lead counsel for Gordon Hirabayashi. They are here today too.

So, we arranged a meeting with Fred Korematsu, a famous name on a famous case and we thought we were very intimidated and daunting to… We’re going to meet Fred Korematsu. It’s like meeting Pennoyer or Neff and thinking, “Whoa. I remember that case. That’s the first one I ever read in civil procedure, 1880-something, it was I guess.”

But we brought these cases in a historical moment in time. It was a time when Japanese Americans were lobbying Congress for redress and reparations, $20,000 and an apology for what they felt was the illegal treatment, but they needed a judicial declaration because this group, which was led by Japanese Americans, but joined by persons of all colors, a rainbow coalition, did not have a judicial declaration to counter the opponents of redress in Congress, who said that, well, the Supreme Court decided these cases in ‘43 and ‘44 so what else can you say about it?

Well, we could say that those decisions were based on fraud. And so we needed a judicial declaration to that effect. In November 1983, we got that declaration from Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, where she ruled that there was serious misconduct which infected those decisions, that there was manipulation of the evidence and that racism most likely infected those military orders. And with those findings, she overturned Fred Korematsu’s 40-year-old conviction.

Minoru Yasui and Gordon Hirabayashi had their convictions overturned as well, but Gordon had to go to the Ninth Circuit to get his relief. And in 1988 – exactly 21 years to this date – August 10, President Reagan signed the bill that granted Japanese Americans, redress – the $20,000 in an apology.

We thought our work was done.

Then the Gulf War happened, then September 11th, and we saw the demonization of another marginalized minority group, Arab Americans and Muslim Americans. It was an echo of history and we saw these striking similarities that made us feel that we needed to speak out. We saw religious profiling, hate crimes, slurs, stereotypes. We saw the calls for mass incarceration of this disempowered group. And then finally the call for an immigration ban.

So we reassembled our legal teams and we started a campaign called “Stop Repeating History” to remind this country about the terrible mistake it made when it incarcerated Japanese Americans, when it passed an immigration ban against Chinese. And we felt that we needed to inform the public and the courts that this kind of things should not happen again.

We as Asian Pacific Americans have been there before, so it was kind of a project that we felt that we absolutely had to do as Americans. But then the Supreme Court decides Trump v. Hawaii and upholds the immigration ban. It repeats history and it ignores the blatant racist comments made underlying that those immigration bans.  It ignores, and fails to explore, any kind of concrete justification for these Orders. And instead it makes the same mistake that in Korematsu was made. And that is the complete deference to the President of the United States. And while it ostensibly overruled Korematsu, it, as Justice Sotomayor says, redeploys the same poor logic and comes to the same result with the same damaging precedent of utter deference to the President.

We live in precarious times. The rule of law is under attack. Racism and white supremacy are being normalized. The barbarism at the border begs for a humane response. We see the disparagement of our judicial system. We see attacks against a free press, attacks against our electoral system and these anti-immigration dog whistles.

And I believe this is where the ABA comes in because it is a powerful, strong organization devoted to the rule of law. It can speak out, as it has been doing, and I’m very proud of Bob Carlson’s statement about the barbarism at this border.  It has been speaking out and I hope it continues to speak out because it has a power to effect the change that we need, at least change in attitudes, and it has a power to help us move forward on social justice issues just as it did when it supported Japanese American redress years ago.

My grandparents suffered discrimination. My parents were put in prisons, but they never lost faith in this country and neither did I or do I, because I keep this faith with the understanding that I have the right to exercise my political birthright to dissent just like Gordon, Min, and Fred did years ago.

So I will never accept that racist command to go back to your own country because

I come from here

I belong here.

We helped build this country, and despite the discrimination, despite this racism, we believe in this country and we are not going anywhere.

Thank you very much.


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