NEW YORK – A re-enactment in New York of Korematsu v. United States, a 1944 Supreme Court case that upheld the wartime incarceration of some 120,000 Japanese-Americans, was recently staged with a new ending that takes into account the court’s decision to overrule the notorious decision last June.
The public event, held on Jan. 30 to mark the centennial of the late Japanese-American activist Fred Korematsu’s birthday, drew a crowd of roughly 150 who watched lawyers and judges re-enact a case that continues to resonate amid President Donald Trump’s harsh policies against Muslim immigrants and asylum-seekers on America’s southern border.
Playing the role of Chief Justice John Roberts, legal analyst Albert Fox Cahn read out the June 2018 rebuke of the 1944 ruling for its support of the “morally repugnant” executive order by which Americans of Japanese ancestry — mostly those residing on the West Coast — were detained in remote U.S. camps during World War II.
“Korematsu was wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and — to be clear — ‘has no place in law under the Constitution,'” Cahn read from the court’s majority opinion.
Although the court’s stance on Korematsu might otherwise have been welcomed by the Japanese-American community, it came as part of a heavily criticized ruling that upheld Trump’s ban on U.S. entry by citizens of several predominantly Muslim countries, a measure within which many see a repeat of such discrimination by executive fiat.
During the panel discussion at the gathering, Rose Cuison Villazor, a law professor at Rutgers University, criticized the court for allowing law based on animus toward a particular group to remain intact.
“(Korematsu) may have been overruled, but we still have this pernicious opinion that continues to exclude on the basis of race on our borders and also within our borders,” she said.
Mike Ishii, 53, co-chair of the New York Day of Remembrance Committee, one of the event organizers and a descendant of Japanese-Americans who were interned, expressed similar frustration.
“The hypocrisy of overturning Korematsu and then upholding that decision (the travel ban) all in one stroke — it is not only insulting but really weakens the Constitution,” Ishii told Kyodo News.
The committee, formed over 30 years ago during the successful grass-roots movement for Japanese-American reparations, has become increasingly active in the city, organizing educational art exhibits and community discussions in the age of Trump.
“Men early on were taken away to Department of Justice camps and separated from their families — this is a next variation . . . taking children away from their families,” Ishii said, comparing U.S. government practices in the 1940s to Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which has seen thousands of migrant children detained without their parents.
U.S. Judge Denny Chin, a narrator in the re-enactment, explained to the audience that the script had been put together by the Asian American Bar Association of New York and used in 11 performances but needed to be reworked to include the Supreme Court’s 2018 opinion.
During the war, Korematsu, then 23, was arrested and charged with violating a government order after resisting relocation to a Japanese-American internment camp.
He appealed his case to the Supreme Court in 1944 and lost in a 6-3 decision that upheld the executive order to place Japanese-Americans in camps. Korematsu’s conviction was eventually overturned in 1983, and he remained an activist until his death in 2005 at the age of 86.
New York City’s Fred T. Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution was adopted in 2017. So far, 10 states recognize Jan. 30 as Korematsu Day, celebrating his legacy of resisting unjust detention before he and his family were sent to the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah during World War II.