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July 28, 2023 Feature

Book Review: Lawyer, Jailer, Ally, Foe: Complicity and Conscience in America’s World War II Concentration Camps by Eric L. Muller

Reviewed by Wendy Muchman

A lawyer is a “public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.” In recent years publicity about lawyers and the 2020 election has been an unavoidable part of our daily lives, raising questions about the role of lawyers in shaping this country. This weighty responsibility for the quality of justice is at the foundation of a timely new book, Lawyer, Jailer, Ally, Foe, by historian and law professor Eric L. Muller, focusing on the role of three lawyers working at the Japanese internment camps in post-1942 America.

In a powerful yet easily read narrative, Muller documents with precision the tension these lawyers experienced attempting to do good while working in a fundamentally unjust system. Based on meticulous research, his book recounts the work of these white lawyers for three separate camps run by the War Relocation Authority (WRA). Overseeing the concentration camps where 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to move after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, they struggled with their responsibilities—struggles made palpable by Muller’s must-read account.

The lawyers each understood they were administering a system of mass racial incarceration. None of them believed the Japanese Americans were a security threat to the United States. Yet, they went to work every day with no clear idea of what their job entailed. Who was their client? The agency that employed them or the prisoners they were employed to assist? Were they furthering the quality of justice or undermining it? These lawyers were actually tasked with determining the distinction between “loyal” and “disloyal” prisoners, an appalling assignment, even to them at the time. On the other hand, they set up a legal aid office for the prisoners, fought against higher authorities to allow the Japanese Americans to run the camp’s court system, and advised the camp director on how best to quell a labor strike.

By employing detailed research, including studying letters the lawyers wrote from the camps to their boss at WRA headquarters in Washington, D.C., Muller recounts a disgraceful episode in American history. He brings to life the perpetration of injustice by a system as well as the frictions placed on individual lawyers striving to do good within it. Eloquently detailing the conflicts these lawyers faced, Muller’s book is a thought-provoking study of the role of the legal profession in society and the power of individual responsibility, even with its imperfections.

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    Reviewed by Wendy Muchman

    Northwestern University

    Wendy Muchman is a Professor of Practice at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.