Robert Rusky, member of Korematsu legal team and community advocate, dies

Robert Rusky. file photo

Robert Rusky, a member of Fred Korematsu’s coram nobis legal team that helped to overturn his wartime conviction four decades after his incarceration, died Nov. 22, 2021 after a bout with cancer. He was 78.

The San Francisco resident was remembered as a “tireless and uncompromising advocate for civil rights who over the years never lost his capacity to be outraged at injustice,” by fellow former coram nobis legal team member Donald Tamaki, senior counsel at the Minami Tamaki LLP law firm in San Francisco.

“Bob has been an unsung civil rights hero for his entire career,” said attorney Dale Minami, the lead attorney in the Korematsu case in the 1980s. “I never met anyone so modest, so accomplished as an attorney and so fierce in his devotion to civil rights for ALL people.”

According to Minami, the senior counsel at Minami Tamaki LLP, Rusky’s role in the Korematsu case “was absolutely critical,” yet “he claimed no credit nor cared for credit as long as the result was right and just. He also played major roles in the Yasui and Hirabayashi cases and many other cases and causes since.”

In nominating him for the T. Okamoto Community Leadership Award in 2010, Tamaki wrote that Rusky “reminds me of those unsung lawyers during World War II who selflessly represented Fred, Gordon and Min in opposing the internment. The simple fact of the matter is that our legal team could not have successfully reopened these cases without Bob’s contributions.”

According to Tamaki, Rusky “played a central role on the team, devoting hundreds of hours and applying his considerable legal skills to drafting the petition that we filed in (the) cases.”

Rusky continued to be involved in legal cases of importance, Tamaki noted, including as part of the pro bono Soko Bukai legal team that sued the San Francisco YWCA for wrongfully claiming title to the Julia Morgan-designed former Japanese YWCA building at 1830 Sutter St. in San Francisco’s Japantown and trying to sell it for $1.65 million at the recent turn of the century. This was a “modern-day ‘Alien Land Law’ case,” Tamaki noted, as California’s infamous 1913 legislation barred Japanese immigrants from owning property because of their racial ancestry.

“As he did on the coram nobis legal team, Bob rendered extraordinary pro bono litigation services and outstanding leadership in this civil rights case of major importance,” Tamaki noted.

The 6.5-year bitter legal case resulted in a settlement that formally closed in May of 2002, requiring the San Francisco YWCA to sell the building and adjacent playground lot to Nihonmachi Little Friends, a multicultural childcare agency.

Rusky continued to do pro bono legal work on landmark issues.

“In 2016-17, Bob was an instrumental part of the joint legal teams representing the adult children of Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Minoru Yasui which filed an amicus brief in Trump v. Hawaii opposing (President) Trump’s Muslim Ban to remind the Court that when it bowed to the will of the Executive Branch in Fred’s, Gordon’s and Min’s challenges to the Japanese American incarceration, it was a civil liberties disaster,” Tamaki told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “The bigoted ban was upheld 5-4, but Justice (Sonia) Sotomayor cited our legal brief in her dissent.”

Minami recalled Rusky’s dedication to justice. “While you might disagree with him on issues, you never doubted his devotion to justice or the honesty of his intentions,” Minami recalled. “I’m not sure I ever met a purer soul.”

Rusky also served as president of the Friends of Hibakusha, a nonprofit organization dedicated to support atomic bomb survivors. Geri Handa, the group’s vice president, said they will “truly miss his compassionate spirit and thoughtful presence.”

“Bob eloquently advocated for the needs and concerns of atomic bomb survivors and their desire for peace,” Handa told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “He was deeply moved by their personal stories and supported FOH’s efforts to share their stories” through film screenings, art, educational programs and exhibits, conferences and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki programs of remembrance.

“Together with the Committee of Atomic Bomb Survivors, FOH has helped to organize and co-sponsor biennial medical visits by Japanese medical teams from Hiroshima to provide follow-up consultations with atomic bomb survivors to further address their health concerns and those of their children,” Handa said.

Minami called Rusky a “devoted father, husband, attorney, civil rights hero, community activist and jazz aficionado. His lifelong partner and wife, Karen Kai, another core member of the coram nobis efforts, were so inextricably bound together, we would refer to them as ‘Ruskai.’ I hope Karen and Quillan can find some peace in knowing that Bob’s contributions will never be forgotten.”

Rusky is survived by his wife, Karen Kai, and their son Quillan.

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