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Fred Korematsu, 86, symbol of fight against WWII internment

SAN FRANCISCO -- Fred Korematsu, a symbol of civil rights for challenging the World War II government orders that sent 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps, died Wednesday of respiratory illness at his daughter's home in Larkspur. He was 86.

''He was like our Rosa Parks," said his lawyer, Dale Minami, in announcing his death. ''He took an unpopular stand at a critical point in our history."

After finally getting his conviction overturned in the early 1980s for opposing internment orders during the war, Mr. Korematsu helped win a national apology and reparations for internment camp survivors and their families in 1988.

He was honored by President Clinton in 1998 with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

''In the long history of our country's constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls -- Plessy, Brown, Parks," Clinton said at the time. ''To that distinguished list today we add the name of Fred Korematsu."

Mr. Korematsu, the son of Japanese immigrants, was a 23-year-old welder living in Oakland in 1942 when military officials ordered all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast -- including US citizens such as Korematsu -- to report to remote internment camps.

Nearly all complied, including Mr. Korematsu's family and friends, who urged him to go along. He refused.

''All of them turned their backs on me at that time because they thought I was a troublemaker," he recalled. ''I thought what the military was doing was unconstitutional. I was really upset because I was branded as an enemy alien when I'm an American."

He was arrested, convicted of violating the order, and sent to an internment camp in Utah. The Supreme Court upheld Mr. Korematsu's conviction in December 1944, agreeing with the government that it was justified by the need to combat sabotage and espionage.

Current legal scholars almost universally regard the 6-3 ruling as one of the worst in the court's history. But it was not challenged until the early 1980s, when Asian-American lawyers and civil rights advocates unearthed evidence that undermined the internment order: The Supreme Court -- and the nation -- had been gravely misled about the potential dangers from Japanese-Americans. World War II era Department of Justice testimony and documents downplaying the possibility of treason had been diluted, dismissed, or destroyed.

The real significance of Mr. Korematsu's case in the 1980s was that it raised, for the first time, the central issue: Was the internment itself constitutional? Minami was the lead attorney in the attempt to overturn the conviction. He and the other lawyers petitioned the 9th US Circuit Court in San Francisco to correct the error that was made before the court. Rarely is such a petition, called a writ of coram nobis, ever granted.

The petition put the Justice Department, which had the responsibility for responding to it, in a position of having to defend the government's action during internment, knowing that the department itself had failed to get accurate information to the court in the original case.

In preliminary discussions with US District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, who was presiding over the case, Justice Department lawyers tried to evade the issue. They suggested a pardon for Mr. Korematsu instead of proceeding with the case, but Mr. Korematsu didn't want forgiveness for refusing to do something he believed was unlawful.

The Justice Department also was unable to persuade Patel not to make formal findings of fact that would fix the blame on the government for the original misrepresentation. After studying the initial positions of Justice's attorneys, Patel said she viewed the department's position as ''tantamount to confessing an error."

She set a hearing for Nov. 10, 1983, in a larger, ceremonial courtroom, anticipating the many internees and their families who would want to witness the historic hearing.

Toward the end of the hearing, in an unusual move, Patel invited Mr. Korematsu, then 64, to speak. The courtroom stilled as Mr. Korematsu spoke for several minutes. ''As long as my record stands in federal court, any American citizen can be held in prison or concentration camps without a trial or a hearing," he said.

Everyone expected Patel to take the case under submission for a later ruling, as would be normal. But, in another surprise, she ruled from the bench, saying she intended to both vacate the conviction and make formal findings of fact -- everything Mr. Korematsu's attorneys had asked for.

''The audience literally was stunned," said legal historian and author Peter H. Irons, who had helped lead the fight to overturn the conviction. ''They had just witnessed an unprecedented event, that this whole internment issue had been resolved by a court 40 years later in their favor."

In her later written ruling vacating the conviction, Patel said in part: ''(Mr. Korematsu) stands as a caution that in times of distress the shield of military necessity and national security must not be used to protect governmental actions from close scrutiny and accountability."

For almost 40 years, Mr. Korematsu had not talked about his experiences; even his daughter, Karen, had to learn about it in a college textbook.

''He felt responsible for the internment in a sort of backhanded way, because his case had been lost in the Supreme Court," Irons said.

''He had a quiet courage," Minami said. ''That's the best way to describe him. He did things because he thought they were right. He just thought this was wrong."

Mr. Korematsu remained active in civil rights issues, speaking out against parts of the Patriot Act that he felt violated the rights of Arab-Americans.

He also targeted how the US military held foreign detainees. Last year, he filed a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court, which was trying to determine whether US courts could review challenges to the incarceration of mostly Afghan prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. ''The extreme nature of the government's position is all too familiar," Mr. Korematsu said in his brief.

The court ruled that the Bush administration's policy of detaining foreign nationals without legal process was illegal.

''Part of his legacy is that he challenged the government in a time of war," Minami said, ''He continued speaking out in support of civil rights and the Constitution for years and years."

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Korematsu leaves his wife, Katherine, and his son, Ken.

Material from the Los Angeles Times was used in this obituary.

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