In honoring him with the ABA Medal, San Francisco attorney Dale Minami said the association recognizes “the entire Asian Pacific American community,” who have historically been “invisible bystanders in the American consciousness.”
“We’re not invisible anymore,” said the lifelong champion of the civil rights of Asian Pacific Americans and other minorities. He received the ABA’s highest honor, which recognizes exceptionally distinguished service by a lawyer or lawyers to the cause of American jurisprudence, on Aug. 10 at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco.
Minami, senior counsel with the personal injury law firm Minami Tamaki LLP, 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 internment center in 1942. Korematsu’s case led to the historic challenge of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II in the case Korematsu v. United States.
Reflecting on his own family’s experience, Minami said that when his grandparents arrived in the United States from Japan in the early 1900s, they faced a “wall of laws denying them the chance to be citizens.”
Still, his parents were “thoroughly Americanized and on their path to the American dream,” when World War II “cruelly interrupted” their lives. Like 120,000 other Japanese Americans, they were sent to an internment camp.
“Their crime was racial ancestry; the justification was military necessity,” Minami said.
Returning to Los Angeles after the war, they raised three sons, the youngest of which was inspired by the civil rights movement to go to law school.
It was at the University of California Berkeley School of Law that Minami read Korematsu and two other internment cases from the 1940s. He found “there was simply no evidence to support the theory that Japanese Americans were disloyal and dangerous.” The government concocted “a flimsy theory” that “the peculiar ethnic characteristics of Japanese Americans predisposed them to disloyalty and therefore made them dangerous,” he said.
“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,” he said.
After law school, Minami worked to “empower the Asian Pacific American community by use of the law as a sword in a shield,” and opened a nonprofit community interest law firm.
In 1982, “Korematsu came back to us” when a professor and lawyer discovered evidence that the government had “altered, suppressed and destroyed critical evidence” in the three internment cases from the ‘40s. The next year, Minami and his team successfully challenged the constitutionality of the internment in Korematsu v. United States. The judge noted “serious misconduct,” including that “racism most likely affected those military orders.” In 1988, President Ronald Reagan granted Japanese Americans who had been interned $20,000 each and an apology.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Minami recognized a demonization against Muslims and reassembled his legal team to start a campaign called “Stop Repeating History.” Today, he sees similar echoes in the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
“We live in precarious times,” he said. “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 the attack against a free press, against our electoral system, in these anti-immigration dog whistles.”
Minami’s grandparents and parents never lost faith in the United States despite the discrimination they suffered, “and neither do I,” he said. Rejecting “the racist command to ‘go back to your country,’” Minami declared: “I come from here. I belong here. We helped build this country…and we are not going anywhere.”
Following Minami, Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit delivered the keynote address, saying “it will take all of our collective efforts to sustain justice as we know it in the United States.”
Calling himself a “longtime, proud member of the American Bar Association,” Thomas thanked the ABA for its support for judicial independence and the rule of law, and “in particular your opposition to the politically driven and ill-conceived efforts to divide the Ninth Circuit.”
He said the U.S. judiciary is “in one of its most challenging periods in its history,” with almost daily attacks on judges for their decisions. Saying he has spent more time on judicial security than ever before, the judge said the Ninth Circuit has had more emergency hearings challenging executive action than ever before and has been through three government shutdowns.
Despite that, “we have kept the machinery of justice alive,” he said.
Emphasizing the need for civics education and describing the judiciary as “the most misunderstood branch of government,” Thomas said the Ninth Circuit livestreams its oral arguments, the transparency of which he says has increased trust in the judiciary. In addition, efforts by the largest of the 13 courts of appeals to “reinvent the judiciary” include revamping jury trial and case management procedures and using data analytics to reduce backlog.
“We in the judiciary …need to act with humility and fairness to afford justice in every single case,” Thomas said.
“We have to continue to insist on emotional intelligence and professionalism in the courts,” he said, noting that “when the two other branches of government are dysfunctional, we need to remain functional.”
The ABA Medal is given only in years when the ABA Board of Governors determines a nominee has provided exceptional and distinguished service to the law and the legal profession. Among previous recipients are legendary justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Felix Frankfurter, Thurgood Marshall, William J. Brennan Jr. and Sandra Day O’Connor. Other recipients include Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski; human rights activist Father Robert Drinan; co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, William H. Gates Sr.; former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and prominent attorneys David Boies and Theodore Olson.