BY Bob Shimabukuro
IE Contributor

“Who knows what a Writ of Coram Nobis is?” Attorney Peggy Nagae asked at the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association western regional conference June 4 in Portland. Only one person raised their hand. The attendees were mostly lawyers 5 or fewer years out of law school, so most were young, at least by my counting.

Just a week earlier, when talking about the coram nobis cases of Fred Korematsu, Minoru Yasui, and Gordon Hirabayashi, Karen Kai —who was the liason attorney for the legal teams of the three — commented, “One thing about the coram nobis cases of the 1980s, a lot of Nisei ladies knew what it was.”

It was pretty amazing. Only two decades later, young APA lawyers knew very little about it. In fact, the only person who raised her hand was Karen Kai.

Confession of Error:

It seemed so …“so what?” That’s what I thought as my email box lit up with comments from mostly lawyers, about Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal’s admission that the U.S. Justice Department had acted dishonorably in defending the convictions of Japanese Americans who had challenged the incarceration and curfew orders (E.O. 9066 and P.L 503) during WWII. Didn’t the three, Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, and Fred Korematsu already prove that with their coram nobis challenges during the 1980s? All three had their convictions vacated. Not what they really wanted, but still a victory. And Hirabayashi had an evidentiary hearing. So all the evidence that had been discovered and argued was presented to the Court and out in the open for all to read and discuss.

But there was that one thing that still bugged everyone who had worked so diligently on the cases: the vacation of their conviction had not overturned the Supreme Court decisions which justified both the incarceration and the stated rationale for it: military necessity. But, hey, they “won.” What’s so great about the Solicitor General saying what they proved, at least to judges, 20 years ago? This is what I thought when I first saw the story.

In the ensuing weeks I went to the Asian Pacific American Bar Association regional conference in Portland, and changed my thinking to, “Why was there so little mention of Katyal’s comments in Seattle?”

This is the city where Hirabayashi was arrested, tried, and convicted. His coram nobis case in the 1980s was the only one of the three in which the judge allowed for an evidentiary hearing, which included evidence that 1943 Solicitor General Charles Fahy covered up and lied about military necessity. A lot of community activists, lawyers and non-lawyers, invested time in the trial and community education.

I also remembered that President George Bush, less than ten years ago, used Korematsu v. United States as a basis for the rounding up of Muslims. Military necessity, he claimed. Surely, we can’t have Presidents claiming Korematsu every time they want to do nasty business.

Katyal’s “confession of error” was not a “so what?”; we should be celebrating the fact that the first Asian American Solicitor General had the guts to do what all the previous Solicitor Generals since Fahy should have done. Additionally, the basis of Katyal’s “confession of error” were the same documents discovered by Aiko Yoshinaga Herzig, researcher for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, and Attorney Peter Irons, who was researching the same subject.

The fact that so few APA lawyers just out of law school knew what a Writ of Coram Nobis was, made me think, in addition to celebrating the “confession,” we need to ensure that the later generations of Asian Americans have the knowledge to appreciate the folks who really stood up for our place in history, at the very least locally.

WWII Japanese American Internment In addition to Minoru Yasui, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Fred Korematsu,
here’s a list of Hirabayashi’s 1980s
coram nobis legal team:

Rod Kawakami and
Kathryn Bannai, team leaders
Nettie Alvarez
Arthur Barnett (dec.)
Jeffrey Beaver
Camden Hall
Daniel Ichinaga
Gary Iwamoto
Craig Kobayashi
Michael Leong
Diane Narasaki
Karen Narasaki
Richard Ralston
Sharon Sakamoto
Roger Shimizu
Benson Wong

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