The ABA Journal Character Witness series explores legal and societal issues through the first-person lens of attorneys in the trenches who are, inter alia, on a mission to defend liberty and pursue justice. The latest installment is “A life of fighting injustice“.
BY DALE MINAMI
I am a third-generation Japanese American. My grandparents emigrated from Southern Japan in the early 1900s seeking “streets of gold” and fleeing deteriorating conditions in their home country. My parents were born in California, citizens by birth. But they were incarcerated with their families during World War II, solely because of their ancestry: first in fetid horse stalls, and later in dismal prisons in the Arkansas swamplands. I was born at the Japanese Hospital in East Los Angeles, the only hospital that admitted Japanese doctors then. My father was a farmer, a gardener and the owner of a small sporting goods store. My mother worked there and at home. I have two older brothers who taught me lessons involving books, sports and unwanted violence upon my person—all valuable lessons later in life.
My parents rarely talked about their degrading incarceration experience, but by their example I was taught to honor the Founding Fathers’ prescription that all Americans are created equal and should be treated accordingly. But watching the civil rights movement unfold on television in the early 1960s, when peaceful African American demonstrators were attacked by vicious dogs and water cannons just because they wanted to eat at a restaurant, utterly confused me. As did the Watts rebellion in 1965—witnessing Los Angeles seemingly burning down, ignited by the frustrations of African Americans whose “American dream” was really a nightmare.
Year of unrest
I could not reconcile the elegant rhetoric of the American promise with such appalling events and with the subtle racism I experienced at the University of Southern California. I graduated in political science with no marketable skills besides selling Converse athletic shoes. My best option was to attend law school. So in 1968, I stepped onto the Berkeley Law campus, where virtually every day produced a new protest or demonstration accompanied by the sting of tear gas. To me, it was the epicenter of our (boomers) generation’s coming of age in such turbulent times. In that year, milestone events erupted—student protests around the world, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, black-gloved fists raised by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico City Olympics protesting racism in the USA, the Democratic National Convention riots, bloody anti-Vietnam War protests against a meaningless conflict, and perhaps the most influential event for me—the Third World Liberation Front strike at San Francisco State University challenging the narrative of history that minimized and distorted the stories, cultures, contributions and characters of people of color.
I was drawn to issues of injustice, and I only later realized how my passion and outrage was formed by my experiences at USC and the urgency of a life-and-death mandate to fight in Vietnam. Perhaps the greatest influence on my perspective was personal—the unjust banishment and imprisonment of my family and 120,000 other Japanese Americans in violation of their Constitutional rights to an attorney, a trial or notice of criminal charges, all justified by a vague and unsupported claim of “military necessity.” The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of my family’s exile in Korematsu v. United States. The law had failed my community.
By the miracle of relaxed grading, I graduated from Berkeley Law and passed the bar. A group of friends and I started a nonprofit community interest law firm, the Asian Law Caucus, dedicated to helping empower the Asian Pacific American community—a populace invisible to the rest of the country whose history, culture, problems and achievements were widely misunderstood or ignored.
We bonded with a fierce collective purpose to make the system responsive to our communities. The ALC unintentionally evolved into a nonprofit private law practice. We were inept at managing a law practice as a business: We focused so much on pro bono social justice causes that we ignored rent and bills!
Anxiety over our lack of practical skills became a nighttime companion, especially without day-to-day mentors. So every Wednesday, I would pack a lunch and hunker down in the law library to study practice books all day. I had to self-educate since I accepted virtually any civil or criminal case that walked through the door.
But besides our lack of experience and knowledge, we faced other daunting opponents—racist and hostile treatment by judges who used slurs or sarcastically asked me, a Japanese American, to translate for my Chinese-speaking client. We suffered through conferences and hearings where judges clearly favored nonminority opposing counsel. Many nights I returned home with my head on fire, outraged and angered. We realized that changing the composition of the bench was the best strategy. So we embarked on a campaign to transform the complexion and gender of the bench through lobbying governors, joining judicial applicant review committees, running candidates and developing contacts with influential allies. The lack of diversity, we realized, derived from lack of power. We have since made great progress, but there are miles to go before we sleep.
We made a living, but I was most drawn to nonremunerative social justice cases—fighting for tenure for professor Don Nakanishi at UCLA; class action lawsuits against discriminatory police sweeps; lawsuits against systematic discrimination at a major insurance company; suing a university to implement an Asian American Studies program; and the overturning of Fred Korematsu’s 40-year-old conviction for his resistance to military orders banishing Japanese Americans.
Korematsu’s conviction during WWII was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1944 in a landmark and much-criticized decision justifying the exile of Japanese Americans. But the more dangerous precedent was the Supreme Court’s near-total deference to the fraudulent proof presented and later revealed in our case—that the government altered, suppressed and destroyed evidence contradicting the government’s claim of disloyalty and the danger of Japanese Americans.
We still hear the echoes of history today. And it is infuriating to see the demonization repeated against Muslims, Arabs, immigrants and marginalized groups. It is also disheartening to repeat the same deference to the president that was the centerpiece of the Korematsu case. Our campaign, Stop Repeating History (stoprepeatinghistory.org), hopes to remind America of the damage racism and unfettered power can wreak on disfavored people and on our nation’s soul.
Maybe the path I took was somewhat nonlinear. I was trying to navigate in a racialized society, harmonizing my love for this country with the cruelty it inflicted and admiring the rule of law but recognizing its limitations. In a midcareer crisis, I once questioned whether I should find another occupation. I lined up the qualities I wanted in a job, measured them against my strengths and weaknesses, and discovered that I was best fit to practice law with my partners who have the same passion for justice, hard work and great legal skills. I never had to look back.
This article appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “A Life of Fighting Injustice.”