USF Alumni Reflect on Korematsu Overturning

Emily Wichtrich

Contributing Writer


Last week, students and faculty were eager to see a panel that promised first-person accounts of the overturning of Korematsu vs. The United States — the Supreme Court case that allowed Japanese internment camps. In 1983, a legal team that included two USF alum challenged the original ruling, revealing that it was made based on falsified evidence submitted by the military. The legal team members discussed the battle for justice and how, with a stroke of luck and against the odds, they fought the United States and won.


Junior biology major Gabby Pascual reflected, “It was pretty inspiring to have heard that all of the speakers were USF Alumni and that they had succeeded in creating meaningful, important changes in their communities.”


The event was as a part of the Thacher Gallery event series pertaining to their current exhibit:  Something from Nothing: Art and Handcrafted Objects from America’s Concentration Camps.” USF law professor Bill Hing emceed the class of ’78 USF law alumni which included the aforementioned Korematsu legal team members, Karen Kai and Robert Rusky, as well as Dean Ito Taylor, executive director of Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach.


Speakers and USF alumni Karen Kai and Robert Rusky were part of the legal team that attorney and author Peter Irons put together after discovering the falsified evidence himself. While conducting research for a book, Irons had requested the court documents for Korematsu through the Freedom of Information Act. Upon inspection, he discovered a copy of the original evidence that claimed Japanese Americans posed a national security threat. On the back of this evidence was a note, not meant to be copied, that revealed the claims against Japanese Americans were fabricated and that any evidence noting the truth was to be destroyed.


The Supreme Court ruling against Korematsu struck down Executive Order 9066 which, relying on the falsified evidence, declared that American citizens of Japanese ancestry be immediately relocated to internment camps as they posed a threat to the rest of the population on the West Coast. In the original case, Korematsu cited his 14th Amendment rights, refusing to be interned and was arrested and convicted of evasion. The Supreme Court ruled that internment of American citizens was, in fact, constitutionally justified in instances of “emergency and peril.”


In the same San Francisco courthouse it was originally made, Korematsu’s conviction was overturned on Nov. 10, 1983 by Judge Marilyn Patel on behalf of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.


“[The Supreme Court] accepted at face value the military’s fears and accusations that Japanese American citizens were all potential saboteurs. Fears and accusations that were connected and concocted and contradicted by official government reports,” said USF law Professor Bill Hing.


How did Kai and Rusky get the connection to be a part of the team that got Korematsu overturned? “I got involved because of school class connections,” Kai said. “So pay attention and make friends because you never know.”


“It was the opportunity of a lifetime […] to right something that was horribly wrong,” Rusky added.


Taylor and Kai are both of a generation of Japanese Americans raised by parents who were in the camps. Kai shared the story of the internment of her father and stepfather. “It was something so traumatic to him,” she said in reference to her stepfather. “He shut it out and made sure it would not penetrate modern life.”  


“We were able to vindicate not just Fred [Korematsu], but Japanese Americans in that courtroom,” said Kai. The audience erupted in applause at the close of the discussion.


After the panel, attendees were invited to a reception in Thacher gallery to reflect in a setting curated on the same subject. Flavio Bravo, a masters student of migration studies, said “It was really powerful that they’re USF alumni, and that all types of USF students, be it undergraduates, masters or law, were in attendance … It makes it more clear that we can be looking to alumni for guidance and leadership on prevalent issues.”


Political science professor Brian Weiner had encouraged his class to attend that evening. “It is important for these stories to be told, particularly because many who have been interned have passed away,” he said. “So, it’s important to remember. It’s a reaffirming story that the law can point in the direction of justice. It’s a particularly important message these days.”

Featured Photo: The panelists share a laugh while reminiscing. Racquel Gonzales/FOGHORN


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