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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

December 2008 - Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied: The Mitsuye Endo Supreme Court Case

Topaz Trek, drawing by Mine Okubo, 1942. (from denshopd-i142-00425)
"The government grossly violated the law of habeas corpus."
   -- William Marutani

One week before Christmas in 1944, a young woman named Mitsuye Endo, living behind barbed wire at the Topaz, Utah, War Relocation Authority camp, learned that she had won her Supreme Court challenge to her imprisonment. After waiting two years for her appeal to be heard, she was declared a loyal citizen, and as such, must be freed to live where she pleased. She won not only her own freedom but that of all other designated loyal Japanese Americans held in the prison camps since spring of 1942.

Mitsuye Endo initially sued to regain the job she was wrongfully fired from after the attack on Pearl Harbor. While detained at Tule Lake, California, she was recruited as a test case by lawyer James Purcell to challenge the legality of the mass incarceration. The 22-year-old Endo was chosen for her fully "American" credentials: as a Nisei, she was a U.S. citizen; she was raised Methodist, the State of California employed her in Sacramento; her brother served in the U.S. Army; and she did not speak Japanese and had never been to Japan.

Purcell filed a writ of habeas corpus on July 12, 1942, demanding to know the cause for her imprisonment and arguing that detaining a person who declared allegiance to the United States was illegal. Endo's case was argued on July 20 in the federal district court in San Francisco. Nearly a year later, on July 3, 1943, the judge issued a verdict. He dismissed the case without comment - declining to decide an issue that affected 70,000 other Nisei citizens. Endo appealed. She likely never met her lawyer, and never appeared in court, but Endo demonstrated considerable personal courage by turning down a leave clearance granted in August 1943. She remained voluntarily confined until her appeal was heard by the Supreme Court in October 1944.

Endo's case was the only victory among the four Supreme Court challenges to the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans. It was a limited victory. The ruling ordered Endo and other designated loyal detainees to be freed, but it did not question the government's imprisonment of them in the first place. Chief Justice William O. Douglas wrote: "We are of the view that Mitsuye Endo should be given her liberty. In reaching that conclusion we do not come to the underlying constitutional issues which have been argued." Douglas maintained the legitimacy of the executive orders that authorized the mass removal and detention by pronouncing them necessary for "prevention of espionage and sabotage," and not "discriminatory action taken against these people wholly on account of their ancestry." 1

While concurring with the verdict, Justice Frank Murphy refuted Douglas's reasoning: "I join in the opinion of the Court, but I am of the view that detention in Relocation Centers of persons of Japanese ancestry regardless of loyalty is not only unauthorized by Congress or the Executive but is another example of the unconstitutional resort to racism inherent in the entire evacuation program."2

Historians have commented on Endo's case far more than the plaintiff herself, who left camp to lead a quiet life in Chicago. With the husband she met at Topaz, Endo raised a family and worked in the mayor's office of human relations. Shunning attention, she did not play a part in the battle for redress. When Mitsuye Endo Tsutsumi died in 2006, the Nichi Bei Times reported that her daughter Terry DeRivera discovered only in her twenties that her mother had played such a significant historical role: "She was very calm about what happened to her. We would get angry because they were U.S. citizens and for this to happen to an American is wrong, but she never did. She was not bitter."3

Others were more angry about the Supreme Court's failure to address the massive violation of constitutional rights. Among them are Densho interviewee William Marutani, who served as a Philadelphia judge and the only Japanese American on the Commission for Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which in the 1980s investigated the wartime measures against Japanese Americans. Marutani points out that a writ of habeas corpus should be ruled on quickly, but Mitsuye Endo remained imprisoned for years before the high court heard her petition. "Justice delayed is justice denied," says Marutani:

This is completely improper, this is a classic example of "justice delayed is justice denied." She is not given her day in court. They finally told her that she was right all along, but 24 months in prison while they come to that decision? It's so abundantly clear that it was unjust... That's outrageous. To let a situation sit around for 24 months ... you know, you could be picked up, any of us could be picked up, just because the government -- the king, the government, whoever it might be-- may not like you for your race, color of your hair, whatever. And keep you in prison for 24 months, and they say, "Oops, we're sorry, we got the wrong person, you're innocent, we were wrong." Can't do that. Yeah, it's a gross violation. The government grossly violated the law of habeas corpus.

Legal scholar Eric Muller explains the reason for the delay: "Archival records from that time show quite plainly that government lawyers dreaded the Endo habeas corpus case. Most lawyers in the military, the Justice Department, and the War Relocation Authority (which ran the camps) were pretty sure they'd win the Yasui, Hirabayashi, and Korematsu cases - and they were right. But most also feared they would lose Endo -- and they were right." He elaborates on the political timing of the Endo decision:

Indeed, it was their fear of a catastrophic loss in Endo (and not, for many of them, any strong sense of justice) that led them to press FDR to end the mass exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. Fearing he would lose California's electoral votes, FDR would not announce the end of the exclusion before the 1944 election. But he did permit the military to make that announcement in December 1944, just before the Court ruled in Endo that the War Relocation Authority lacked the legal authority to continue to detain loyal Japanese Americans. By announcing the end of exclusion moments before the Court's decision, the government hoped to drain Endo of its significance.4

The day before the Endo decision was announced, the Western Defense Command issued a dry press release stating that "those persons of Japanese ancestry whose records have stood the test of Army scrutiny during the past two years" would be released from internment beginning in January 1945. The confined Japanese Americans were permitted to return to the West Coast. Their exclusion and detention were legally ended. Their shame lived on.

1. Text of Ex Parte Endo. [ link ]

2. Ibid.

3. "Civil Rights Icon Mitsuye Endo Led a Quiet Life," Nichi Bei Times, June 15, 2006. [ link ]

4. Eric Muller, Is That Legal? online symposium, June 5, 2006, commemorating Endo's court challenge. [ link ]

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