Korematsu Center Turns 10: Civil rights advocates fight for justice in Washington and beyond

(This story originally appeared in Lawyer, Fall 2019.)

By Claudine Benmar

It started out as the Center for the Study of Race and Inequality. A fine name. A proper, academic name. But, truth be told, a boring name.

The year was 2009. Professor Robert Chang, a renowned critical race theorist and legal scholar, envisioned a center that would use research, advocacy, and education to fight racial inequities in the legal system. He wanted to train the next generation of civil rights lawyers, and to marshal whatever resources he could find in an effort to keep courts fair and free of bias.

Professor Lorraine Bannai and Fred Korematsu at the Japanese American National Museum in 2004Chang relocated from Los Angeles to Seattle University School of Law, whose Jesuit-informed social justice mission made it a natural home for such a center. He met with several faculty members, including Professor Lorraine Bannai, who had a background in civil rights litigation and was then in her 13th year of teaching legal writing in Seattle. As the pair met at Stumptown Coffee, discussing the center's future amid the roar of the roasting machine and the thick scent of coffee, Bannai had a sudden insight.

Why not name the center after a real-life civil rights icon, someone whose story vividly illustrated how the law can be used to either prop up or dismantle racism? Why not name the center after her dear departed friend and former client, Fred Korematsu?

With the blessing of Korematsu's wife, Kathryn, and his daughter, Karen, that vision became a reality. Now, as the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality marks its 10-year anniversary, the legacy of this civil rights icon lives on through the center's work.

Korematsu, who passed away in 2005, was a young welder and U.S. citizen living in California who bravely disobeyed his government's unjust orders to report to an incarceration camp for Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans during World War II. He was arrested and convicted, and following appeal, his conviction was infamously upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds of national security. Forty years later, lawyers (including Bannai) helped him prove in court that the incarceration was based on racism, and the conviction was vacated.

His struggle and eventual victory inspire faculty, staff, and students at Seattle U Law every single day.

"Everything we do at the Korematsu Center is informed by the legacy of Fred," Chang said. "He really understood, especially after 9/11, that he could speak as the conscience of America because of what he had gone through. He could serve as a living reminder of what happens when our country doesn't live up to its ideals."

Bannai agreed: "It makes a big difference when you're working in someone's name. You're always mindful of this person's life and what they stood for."

Bringing the center to life

It takes financial support to bring an idea from the planning stages to reality, and there simply would be no Korematsu Center without philanthropists like the Hon. Don Horowitz and the husband and wife team of James Degel '80 and Jeanne Berwick. In their own ways, they were inspired by Fred Korematsu's story as well as Chang's commitment to the cause. Horowitz's gifts funded a short-term assistant director and provided initial funding for a part-time staff attorney. Degel and Berwick provided the gift that launched the center's Civil Rights Clinic, and their subsequent gifts have funded expansion of staff and services.

"All you have to do is look around," Degel said. "The inequality that Fred Korematsu stood up to, the causes that he fought for — those issues never end. So the work of the center continues on."

The center's staff attorneys keep in touch with advocacy groups to find cases where the center can get involved early on, in order to have the most impact. Students in the center's Civil Rights Clinic research legal issues, write amicus briefs, and help with the center's impact litigation.

The center's accomplishments over the past decade would make its namesake proud.

One of the Civil Rights Clinic's first cases turned into a six-year involvement where the center served as co-counsel to students in Tucson, Arizona, who fought to preserve their school's Mexican American Studies Program. The center worked with both local counsel and a team of attorneys from the New York office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. The students prevailed after a 10-day trial that took place in the dog days of summer in Tucson in 2017.

Civil rights amicus clinic at Korematsu CenterLaw students and faculty have authored numerous amicus briefs on juvenile sentencing, employment discrimination, racially disparaging trademarks, jury bias, and more. Assisted by teams of lawyers from the firm Akin Gump, the center challenged the Trump Administration on multiple fronts — the Muslim travel ban, the addition of a citizenship question on the U.S. Census, and the rescinding of protections for immigrant children.

In fact, during oral arguments in Washington v. Trump, the case challenging the travel ban, U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Paez mentioned the Korematsu Center amicus brief, comparing the government's current actions to the "facially legitimate" executive order from seven decades ago.

"At that moment I knew he had read our brief, and that it really made him think," said Assistant Director Melissa Lee. "I was so thrilled that we were able to make a tangible impact in such a crucial case."

The center has also published influential reports on race and the criminal justice system and the overreach of border patrol officers on the Olympic Peninsula. And the center provides a home for two other ambitious law school efforts — the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project and The Defender Initiative.

Perhaps most importantly, as part of a law school, the center has trained countless new lawyers in civil rights advocacy and litigation, instilling in them the value of pro bono work and a hunger for social justice. Two students have even argued appeals at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, coached by the center's litigation director, Professor Charlotte Garden.

The Korematsu Center wasn't yet in existence when Sharon Sakamoto '84 was a law student, but she identifies strongly with its mission. She was born in an incarceration camp in Idaho, one state away from where Fred Korematsu was held. Because of her own family's painful history, she served as a plaintiff in the center's amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking to remove a citizenship question from the U.S. Census, citing the abuse of census data by the federal government to round up Japanese American families during World War II.

"I hope the impact of the work for equality and social justice begun in the Korematsu Center expands in concentric circles, much like a rock dropped in a still pond," Sakamoto said. "I have this hope as a resident of Washington state, as a citizen and resident of the United States, and I have this hope as a lawyer."

These circles are already visible in the careers of the inaugural Korematsu Center teaching fellow, who is now an associate professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law. Another teaching fellow taught for several years before joining the New York State Office of the Attorney General.

A focus on racial justice

While some cases directly relate to the type of xenophobia exhibited in the Korematsu case, others have to do with bias and discrimination in general. In just a decade, the center has earned national renown and contributed to significant change in Washington and beyond on these issues.

An early project for Chang and others at the center was to convene a statewide task force in the wake of comments by two sitting state Supreme Court justices that African Americans are overrepresented in Washington's prison population because they commit more crime. The comments electrified the state's legal community, especially those who knew the comments to be a gross oversimplification of a very real problem.

In 2011 the task force — a dedicated group of lawyers and judges, including then-King County Superior Court Judge Steven González — published a report that methodically detailed the scope and causes of racial disparity in the state's criminal justice system, notably emphasizing the concept of implicit bias, in which prejudice operates at a subconscious level. The report's authors followed up with in-person presentations of their findings to lawyers and judges across the state.

"Implicit bias — those words — first make their way into Washington court rulings in 2013," Chang said. "Contemporaneously, the justices and judges organize conferences included sessions on implicit bias. Then, in 2018, Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst writes in State v. Gregory that 'this court takes judicial notice of the operation of implicit bias' when they say that the death penalty as applied is unconstitutional."

Beyond that momentous death penalty ruling, the state Supreme Court's actions in another case led to the adoption in 2018 of General Rule 37, which makes it clear that implicit bias is as problematic as conscious, obvious bias in jury selection, particularly targeting the use of peremptory strikes by lawyers seeking to exclude people of color from juries.

Professor Robert Chang at Spring Visit Day"It takes sustained engagement on the issues to bring about changes like these," Chang said. "And we are by no means done. At the center, we are thinking about the different ways that implicit bias distorts outcomes and how antidiscrimination law might better respond to provide remedies to victims of discrimination."

Seattle attorney Taki Flevaris, who volunteered as a Korematsu Center advocacy fellow in 2009 and worked on the report, calls its publication a "watershed moment" for Washington.

"There is an academic approach to everything the Korematsu Center does that lends credibility and objectivity," he said. "That is something that makes it more powerful and effective."

Flevaris, now a partner at Pacifica Law Group, continues to work on legal briefs with the Korematsu Center, most recently in a filing with the Supreme Court of North Carolina as part of an effort to encourage high courts in other states to follow Washington's example on reducing bias in jury selection. 

"It's underappreciated just how much state law touches on and affects everyday society and key issues," he said. "Federal courts don't have the same breadth."

Priorities for the future

As the Korematsu Center moves into its next 10 years and beyond, this state-by-state approach to advocacy is where Chang sees tremendous potential. 

"It's part of an extended conversation about how discrimination operates, and to empower our state judiciaries to believe that they can do something about it," he said.

Assistant Director Jessica Levin cited juvenile sentencing as an example of this approach. In the case State v. Bassett, the center wrote an amicus brief that helped persuade the Washington Supreme Court to rule against life without parole sentences for children and teens.

In both the juvenile sentencing case and the death penalty cases, "we wrote about the importance of deciding the issues under our state constitution, and the court did just that," she said. "We feel grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in these landmark decisions and hope they spur similar progress in other jurisdictions."

Chang also works to create strategic partnerships with individual lawyers and law firms. In addition to Akins Gump and Weil, Gotshal & Manges, another important long-term relationship is with Perkins Coie. Attorney David Perez, now a partner and the pro bono chair of that firm's Seattle office, worked briefly as the Korematsu Center's assistant director before joining the firm.

Chang continues to find inspiration in the story of Fred Korematsu, but there's another hero close to his heart at all times — Charles Hamilton Houston, influential dean of Howard Law School in the 1930s and mentor to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

"He told the students that he was training them to be social engineers. He saw that as the role for lawyers in fighting segregation," Chang said. "He talked about identifying the dragons that needed to be slain, and the work they had to do to slay them."

Fred Korematsu identified and eventually slayed the dragon of prejudice in wartime incarceration. What other dragons will be next to fall? Whatever they may be, Chang's team at the Korematsu Center, including outside lawyers like Flevaris and Perez, is ready for battle. The team reminds him of the bright, ambitious advocates Houston coached at Howard.

"I think about all of us involved with the center, including the students, and I think we have something really special here," he said. "It's an honor to be part of that."