Looking back, reaching forward

New Fred T. Korematsu Center works for law and equality

In the days leading up to the formal launch of the ground-breaking Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, staff members in offices throughout Sullivan Hall taught themselves the Japanese art of origami, folding multi-colored papers into delicate cranes that symbolize good luck and good fortune.

Fred Korematsu's daughter, Karen, (left) and widow, Kathryn, hold a photo of Fred wearing his cherished Presidential Medal of Freedom. Photo by Steve Shelton.

The communal effort reflected how the law school has embraced the center, as well as the spirit of collaboration and optimism the new institute has encouraged. Nearly half the faculty have become fellows of the center, and many important projects are already underway. The launch celebration, "Looking Back, Reaching Forward," demonstrated the important work the center will do to combat discrimination through education, advocacy and research. An inspiring program included a moving tribute to the man for whom the center is named and thought-provoking discussions with distinguished panelists.

But it was just the beginning.

"I firmly believe we are in the middle of an event that will have ripple effects for years to come," said Professor Joaquin Avila, director of the National Voting Rights Advocacy Initiative housed in the Korematsu Center. "We will look back and see it was a pivotal moment for people of color and the underprivileged. This is why this is so important."

The Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality aims to advance social justice by fostering critical thinking about discrimination in U.S. society and through targeted advocacy to foster equality and freedom.

Its research unit will focus on understanding the relationship between law and categories of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, disability and religion, especially with regard to their intersections. It will bring together scholars from various disciplines and will support interdisciplinary scholarship. The advocacy unit will apply this understanding to combat discrimination through targeted advocacy efforts. The education unit will create a focus area in Law and Equality for J.D. students and will help train the next generation of scholar/teacher/activists through post-graduate teaching and advocacy fellowships.

It is named for Fred Korematsu, a quiet, hard-working, law-abiding man who was ordered to report for internment because he was of Japanese ancestry. He refused, was jailed and then sent for internment. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed his conviction. Forty years later, the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California vacated that conviction on proof that the government had suppressed, altered and destroyed material evidence that contradicted the government's claim of military necessity. He went on to champion the cause of civil liberties, seeking redress for Japanese Americans who were wrongfully interned and traveling the country speaking about his case and other violations of civil rights, especially after 9/11.

"It's so inspiring for the center to be named for my father," said Korematsu's daughter, Karen, who attended the celebration with her mother, Kathryn. "Education was very important to my father. The issues this center will study, the education and the advocacy work, those were all very important to my father and to my family."

While the launch was timed to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the decision vacating Korematsu's conviction, the center's work is much broader. It will build on the law school's strong faculty in the area of law and equality, including Chang, Professor and Associate Director Lori Bannai, as well as Professors Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, leading authorities in critical race theory, and Donald and Lynda Horowitz Professor the Pursuit of Justice Margaret Chon, co-author of "Race, Rights and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment" and many other faculty members.

Current projects include Avila's initiative, which will study ways to combat minority vote dilution; the Defender Initiative, run by Professor from Practice Bob Boruchowitz aimed at improving public defense; the Civil Right to Counsel Initiative, in which Clinical Professors Lisa Brodoff and Raven Lidman are planning a symposium to focus on the civil right to counsel for low income individuals as part of the much broader access to justice framework. The center is also developing a Civil Rights Amicus Clinic, working on several book projects and developing a two-year teaching fellowship to train an aspiring law teacher to become a teacher, scholar, and activist consistent with the vision of the Korematsu Center.

Professor and Director Robert Chang is a recognized expert in race and the law. Photo by Steve Shelton.

"Improving diversity, giving opportunities - those are things this center will do," said Center Director Professor Robert Chang. Chang gave up an offer for a prestigious chair at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles to come to Seattle University School of Law and start a center that builds on his life's work. He relished the opportunity to not only teach and do his own scholarly work, but to involve others, create a think tank, provide opportunities for junior scholars, post-graduate fellowships and effect change.

"What drew me to Seattle University School of Law was its commitment to social justice and this amazing opportunity I had to start a center - something I've wanted to do for a long time," Chang said.

Chang, whose family moved to the United States from Korea when he was 3, learned some painful lessons about the realities of racism growing up in a small town in Ohio. His father was a librarian at Denison University in Granville, a town of 3,500 that was home to very few Asian Americans, African Americans or Latinos. He remembers being left out and called names, including the "N word" when he was in seventh grade. As hurtful as those incidents were, they helped foster Chang's commitment to fighting discrimination of all kinds.

"I don't know that I really thought that much on a really conscious level, but those formative experiences with race had an impact on me has allowed me to make connections to other groups," he said.

He has become one of the nation's most respected legal scholars in the area of critical race theory. He received Clyde Ferguson Award from the Minority Groups Section of the Association of American Law Schools. The honor, named for one of the first African-American tenured professors at Harvard Law School, is granted to "an outstanding law teacher who in the course of his or her career has achieved excellence in the areas of public service, teaching and scholarship."

Chang is the author of "Disoriented: Asian Americans, Law and the Nation-State" and more than 35 articles, essays, and chapters published in leading law reviews and books on Critical Race Theory, LatCrit Theory, and Asian American Legal Studies. He is working on an anthology on Asian Americans and the Law.

"It's been remarkable working with everyone to develop the center," Chang said. "We are really starting something special."

Chon, who also serves as associate dean for research and centers, said the center's focus on equality rather than inequality is an important distinction, shifting the focus on how to work together to create and empower lasting movements in the service of social justice.

"What will it take to reach equality in today's increasingly unequal, global and pluralistic world? People, politics and passion for justice remain relevant for this center as it engages in advocacy, education and research in pursuit of equality," Chon said in her keynote address. "The center provides an institutional space for re-affirming that law is not only a weapon for injustice, but also a vehicle making justice conform more closely with the law."

Honoring Fred Korematsu's legacy

In 1996, Fred Korematsu wrote an inscription to Lori Bannai's 4-year-old son, Eliot, in the children's book that tells his life story, "When Justice Failed: The Fred Korematsu Story."

"Dear Eliot,

When you are old enough to read this book, ask your mother about her being one of my attorneys in 1983. She is a very special person to me and good friend," Korematsu wrote.

Years later, Bannai is the associate director of the center named for him. Her affiliation is intensely personal because of her personal relationship with Korematsu and her own family history.

Professor and Associate Director Lori Bannai talks about Korematsu's case and her relationship with him. Photo by Marcus Donner.

Bannai's parents, grandparents and other family members were incarcerated at the Manzanar Internment Camp in California, but they seldom discussed it when she was growing up. When Bannai was a law student, she read about the original Korematsu case in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the internment.

"It was really outrageous, because these were my parents, my family, they were talking about," Bannai recalled.

She began talking to her family about their experiences at a time when the Japanese American community as a whole as opening up and talking about redress for the first time.

Her father left camp and enlisted in the service. He went on to volunteer for the 442nd Regiment, the most highly decorated military unit in history. He was asked to join the military intelligence service, went to Japanese language school and spent the war years in the South Pacific. It was on a visit to relatives that he met the woman who would become his wife at a camp dance.

Just two years out of law school, Bannai was one of the idealistic young lawyers who represented Korematsu. Approached by Professor Peter Irons, who had uncovered evidence that the government suppressed evidence and wanted to reverse Korematsu's conviction, she was eager to be involved.

"We knew we were right," she said. "I can't remember ever thinking we were going to lose. It was one of the most well-known cases in us history, but it was very much about my parents and my community.

Reopening the case and the whole issue of the incarceration started a process of community healing, a chance for the Nisei (second generation) to begin to tell their stories. My mother said she always felt guilty that she had done something wrong."

Bannai and said Fred and Kathryn Korematsu looked out for the young lawyers, making sure they were eating well and taking care of themselves.

"We become like family when we were working on the case, and remain so," Bannai said.

Korematsu spoke at the law school twice, and Bannai had visited them in California. He died in 2005.

"It was both overwhelming and thrilling to bring together members of law school community, people from the community, former internees, advocacy groups and Fred's family," she said. "The launch of the center was extraordinary, and in many ways made me feel like I had come full circle. I never thought that my connection with Fred and his case would lead to my present work in furthering his legacy through the center."

I would have never thought that things would come full circle the way they have. It's wonderful and extraordinary that something I started on 25 years ago is what I'm writing about and that I'm working on center that's fulfilling this legacy."

For Korematsu, his case was simple.

"He wanted to be treated like an American," said Don Tamaki, one of the members of his legal team who paid tribute to Korematsu. "He loved his country."

The fight, and the victory, were life-changing.

"It transformed him. It transformed his family, and it definitely transformed us as lawyers," Tamaki said.

His family is gratified the center will continue his legacy. Korematsu, and her mother, Kathryn, attended the opening and presented two photographs: one of Korematsu with the Presidential Medal of Freedom he received from President Clinton and another of Korematsu with Rosa Parks. The family also loaned the law school some of Korematsu's personal belongings for an exhibit at the Law Library.

"We knew it was a landmark case, but I don't think anyone knew 25 years ago the significance it would have, especially after 9-11," Karen Korematsu said. "He was thoroughly disgusted when they referred to rounding up Arabs."

"I wish he was here to see this, because he would have loved it," his widow said. "He said he wanted to keep telling his story, so people don't forget we can make a difference."

Projects of the Korematsu Center

The Korematsu Center already has several projects underway, including:

National Voting Rights Advocacy Initiative

Joaquin AvilaThe School of Law is poised to become the national leader in combating electoral discrimination with the founding of the National Voting Rights Advocacy Initiative, led by Distinguished Practitioner in Residence Joaquin Avila, one the country's foremost authorities on voting rights issues.

It will serve as a national resource center for voting rights practitioners and advocates who are involved in litigation, legislative and advocacy efforts to eliminate methods of election that have a discriminatory effect on minority voting strength.

"Seattle University School of Law is the only law school in the country that has established this innovative project in anticipation of the upcoming 2011 redistricting of election districts for members of Congress, city councils, school boards and the governing boards of other political entities," Chang said.

A website will provide access to administrative determinations by the United States Attorney General pursuant to Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act, to legislative hearings surrounding the passage, amendments and reauthorization of the federal Voting Rights Act, to litigation manuals and pleadings focusing on legal challenges to redistricting plans and at-large methods of election, and to selected analysis of both federal and state voting rights cases. Law students will work on proposed legislation affecting the right to vote at the federal and state levels. The law school also will initiate a process for the documentation of voting rights abuses and problems that can be utilized in congressional oversight hearings

Avila will work with minority bar associations, national civil rights organizations and voting rights attorneys throughout the country. The data, expert reports and legal memoranda that will be generated and collected will provide scholars with research that will be useful in preparing articles and filing cases. He will continue to teach a voting rights course for the law school.

Avila is a nationally recognized expert on Latina/o voting rights and former president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He was involved in the efforts to both amend and reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and was instrumental in the dismantling of many discriminatory methods of election throughout California and parts of the Southwest. During this time period he also successfully argued two appeals in the United States Supreme Court involving enforcement of the special provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

He also spearheaded various legislative efforts in California to make the electoral process more accessible to Latinas/os. His most significant accomplishment in the legislative arena was the passage of the 2001 California State Voting Rights Act, the only state voting rights act in the nation. He has received numerous awards in recognition of his work in the voting rights area and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant."

The Defender Initiative

Bob BoruchowitzThe Defender Initiative, led by Professor from Practice Robert C. Boruchowitz, aims to improve public defense representation for thousands of people in Washington and to provide models for application in other states. The first project of the initiative was a joint effort with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to conduct a comprehensive investigation of misdemeanor public defense in the United States and resulted in the publication of a report, "Minor Crimes, Massive Waste: The Terrible Toll of America's Broken Misdemeanor Courts," which found alarming problems that waste taxpayer money and compromise the reliability of the criminal justice system and public confidence in courts.

The report said misdemeanor courts across the country are wasting money and eroding the rights of the accused and recommends that states divert non-violent misdemeanor cases that do not threaten public safety to programs that are less costly to taxpayers and repay society through community service or civil fines.

"There are staggering problems, including depriving people of the right to counsel, pressuring defendants to plead guilty without ever talking to a lawyer and wasting time and money on minor offenses instead of focusing on crimes that endanger public safety," said Boruchowitz, the lead researcher on the project and the former longtime director of The Defender Association.

Misdemeanors - crimes such as curfew violations, driving with a suspended license, loitering, possession of marijuana and open container laws - lead to expensive prosecutions on the taxpayers' dime. The volume of cases is staggering. A median state misdemeanor rate of 3,544 cases per 100,000 citizens indicates that taxpayers are burdened with paying the costs of more than 10 million prosecutions per year, the report said. There are more than 300,000 cases per year in Washington.

Courts are clogged, and many public defenders are handling hundreds more cases than they can ethically manage, spending just minutes preparing for each case. And some defendants are completely deprived of their constitutional right to counsel, putting states at risk for expensive lawsuits on top of the heavy financial burden of unnecessary incarceration costs.

"It is stunning how many people go without lawyers," Boruchowitz said. "And it is almost unbelievable how many cases some public defenders have. In four major cities - Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, and New Orleans - defenders have more than 2,000 cases per lawyer per year. In New Orleans it is more than 18,000, which means that the lawyer has five minutes per client."

He noted that by imposing fines and community service rather than jail time for the most minor offenses, Washington, and states everywhere, can immediately save millions of dollars on costly prosecutions.

The Initiative is working on a project to implement the right to counsel in misdemeanor cases, funded by the Foundation for Open Society. Boruchowitz joined the faculty in January 2007 after 33 years as a public defender, the final 28 of which he was Director of The Defender Association in Seattle. He has appeared at every level of state and federal courts and has spoken and written widely on issues relating to right to counsel, management of defender offices, racial disparity in the criminal justice system, defense of death penalty cases, and defense of clients in civil commitment cases.

Civil Right to Counsel Initiative

The Korematsu Center and the Committee for Indigent Representation and Civil Legal Equality (CIRCLE) at the Northwest Justice Project will present a Civil Right to Counsel Symposium at the law school in February 2010. Led by Clinical Professors Lisa Brodoff and Raven Lidman, the symposium will bring together a variety of civil right to counsel stakeholders including academics, legal aid practitioners, judges, bar leadership, and legislators to engage in a discussion about the civil right to counsel landscape nationally and in Washington State. The substance of the symposium will focus specifically on the civil right to counsel for low income individuals as part of the much broader access to justice framework. The symposium will serve as an education vehicle for lawyers and students and as a workshop for interested parties.

Civil Rights Amicus Clinic

In cooperation with the Ronald A. Peterson Law Clinic, the center is developing a two-semester civil rights amicus clinic to start in fall 2010. The broader vision of the civil rights amicus clinic is an effort to democratize the courts. It will have a classroom component in the fall focusing on civil rights litigation strategy, followed by an amicus clinic where students will be supervised by faculty members and will work in coordination with lawyers to draft amicus briefs in litigation matters that further the Korematsu Center's mission. Students will be responsible for developing a public education strategy that will include reaching out to organizations and their constituencies to educate, empower, and enfranchise communities to promote broader civic engagement.

Korematsu Teaching Fellow

Designed to address the lack of diversity in the legal academy, this two-year teaching fellowship will train an aspiring law teacher to become a teacher, scholar, and activist consistent with the vision of the Korematsu Center. Teaching fellows will be selected based on their likely production of cutting edge scholarship in the area of law and inequality and their likely contribution to enhancing and promoting diversity in the profession will receive mentoring in the area of scholarship and teaching. The search starts this summer, aiming to have the first fellow in residence in fall 2010.

Book Projects

Professors Chang, Delgado and Stefancic are convening a group of scholars from different disciplines to engage for a three-year period the topic "After Race" through a set of interrelated questions that will lead ultimately to an edited anthology and a conference.

Chang and a guest editor, Greg Robinson, a historian based in Canada, will look at group cooperation and conflict, historical perspectives and contemporary issues, in the center's second book project.

By Katherine Hedland Hansen

Summer 2009