Gordon Hirabayashi

Gordon Hirabayashi
Gordon Hirabayashi
Source: Wikipedia

The United States entered war with the Empire of Japan on December 8, 1941, just one day after the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. As a result, a curfew of 8:00 p.m. was imposed on all persons of Japanese descent. Shortly thereafter, the US government implemented Executive Order 9066, which mandated the removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans and immigrants alike. American citizen Gordon Hirabayashi, a senior at the University of Washington, found the curfew and relocation mandates to be unconstitutional and racially discriminatory.

As a pacifist practicing civil disobedience, Hirabayashi ignored both the curfew and the order to register at a detention center. He turned himself in to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, after which he was arrested and jailed for defying the curfew exclusion orders. Because he refused to post the $500 bail, Hirabayashi remained in jail for five months, from May 1942 to October 1942, until his case was heard before a federal jury in Seattle. The all-white jury decided on a “guilty” verdict after ten minutes of deliberation and gave him two thirty-day sentences to be served consecutively.

Like Fred Korematsu, Hirabayashi appealed his conviction, first to the circuit court in the local jurisdiction, then all the way to the Supreme Court in Hirabayashi v. United States. As in the Korematsu case, the Supreme Court upheld the curfew as constitutional but did not rule on the exclusion order.

After Korematsu v. United States was ruled upon, the Court cited the Hirabayashi ruling in its majority opinion, upholding the restrictions placed on Japanese Americans. The trajectory of this story again follows that of Fred Korematsu: Hirabayashi v. United States was overturned in 1987 based on a writ of coram nobis, a legal order that allows the court to reverse its decision because of a fundamental error that would have prevented the original decision from being made.

As with Korematsu, the evidence that demonstrated a fundamental error in the original case came from documents discovered by legal historian Peter Irons and researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga in their research for the federal Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, a bipartisan Congressional committee whose findings ultimately led to the passage of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, wherein the United States government formally apologized to and provided redress payments for the formerly incarcerated Japanese Americans and their families.

In May 2012, President Obama posthumously awarded Gordon Hirabayashi the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.