A rebel with many causes


By Charles Wollenberg (Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books, 2018, 160 pp., $20, hardcover)

Representing unpopular clients is a lawyer’s highest calling. Yet few heeded that call on behalf of Japanese Americans during World War II. Among these few was Wayne Collins, who represented thousands of Nikkei whom our government demonized and stripped of rights.

“The United States Constitution is not self-starting: it needs human intervention to transform its noble words and principles into concrete reality,” says “Rebel Lawyer.”

Collins was a notable choice for that intervention. Although hot-tempered, Collins had dedication, fearlessness, a feel for the gut issues, tactical judgment, empathy with the underdog, and a stubborn adherence to what was right.

Collins, whom “Rebel Lawyer” calls Japanese Americans’ “most committed, consistent, and effective defender,” represented Fred Korematsu from the trial court to the Supreme Court. Although Korematsu was a loss during the war, after Collins’ 1974 death the trial court found that the government had lied to the court, validating Collins’ claim that the asserted “military necessity” was a lie. Congress later validated Collins again, finding that racism caused the incarceration. The acting solicitor general in 2011 confessed error by his wartime predecessor’s lies. And last month the Court, with debatable meaning, overruled its wartime Korematsu decision.

Collins twice got the War Relocation Authority to empty the Tule Lake Stockade, where the WRA confined so-called “troublemakers.” Collins worked with others on the Hirabayashi, Yasui and Endo cases. His representation of a loyal American convicted of being “Tokyo Rose,” Iva Toguri D’Aquino, passed after his death to his son, who got her a presidential pardon. Via habeas corpus, Collins stopped the government’s deportation of 300 Japanese Latin Americans kidnapped at its behest from their countries.

And for 23 years he fought to restore U.S. citizenship to 5,400 Nisei who, under duress, had renounced it. By 1968, almost all 5,400 had regained their citizenship.

Despite these impressive accomplishments, Collins’ work has gone largely unrecognized. Many in the Nikkei community disparaged Korematsu and others who protested the incarceration’s injustice. The Japanese American Citizens League, adopting government propaganda that equated dissent with disloyalty, inveighed against many of Collins’ clients. The American Civil Liberties Union national leadership had close ties to the Roosevelt administration, and tried to get ACLU offices including Collins’ Northern California branch to limit their suits against that administration. A later commentator, Peter Irons, blasted Collins for a “shotgun” style of litigation whose claims “bordered on the frivolous” and showed “lack of legal knowledge.” But the adversary system exists to separate successful from unsuccessful claims. And as shown by the system’s changing responses to Korematsu, above, the rejected claims of one age can rule in the next.

“Rebel Lawyer” is the first book to survey Wayne Collins’ noteworthy work for Nikkei. This readable 160-page biographical book gives us a needed introduction to this long-neglected hero of civil rights advocacy.

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