On December 10, 2015, the Denver office of Gordon & Rees hosted a reception for the Asian Pacific American Bar Association (APABA) of Colorado to celebrate President Obama’s decision to award the Medal of Freedom to Minoru Yasui.
Mr. Yasui was born in Hood River, Oregon to Japanese immigrants in 1916. He graduated from the University of Oregon, enlisted in the United States Army Infantry Reserve, and later became the first Asian American to graduate from the University of Oregon School of Law.
After the United States entered WWII, Mr. Yasui tried to report for duty on nine separate occasions, but was denied from serving each time. Once the United States began arresting Japanese Americans—including members of his own family—as enemy aliens based on their heritage, Mr. Yasui dedicated his practice to assisting them, largely on a pro bono basis.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the military to set up exclusion zones, curfews, and interment camps for Japanese Americans. Mr. Yasui was deliberately arrested for breaking curfew in order to challenge the constitutionality of this Executive Order. At his trial, the district court convicted him, declared that he was no longer a United States citizen, and sent him to an internment camp. On appeal, the United States Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision to strip his citizenship, but upheld his conviction, holding that the government could restrict the lives of its citizens during times of war.
After he was released from his internment camp in 1944, Mr. Yasui moved to Denver, Colorado. He passed the Colorado Bar but was prohibited from practicing law due to his conviction. With the help of the ACLU, he appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court and was allowed to practice. Mr. Yasui then dedicated the remainder of his life to protecting the civil rights of all people, regardless of race or national origin. In addition to his law practice, he served on the mayor’s Commission on Community Relations, which dealt with race relations and other social issues, as well as the Japanese American Citizens League, where he continued to seek redress for the interment of Japanese Americans during the war.
In 1983, Mr. Yasui sought to vacate his conviction after governmental misconduct during his prosecution came to light. Three years later, with his case still pending on appeal, he died and the United States Supreme Court dismissed his case as moot.
In honor of Mr. Yasui’s dedication to civil rights and contributions to the community, the Minoru Yasui Inn of Court was established in 1996. The City and County of Denver named a building after Mr. Yasui and designated September 10 as Minoru Yasui day. On November 24, President Obama posthumously awarded Mr. Yasui the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
In addition to APABA’s members, the reception was attended by members of the judiciary and other prominent members of the Colorado legal community. Lance Ream, a senior counsel in Gordon & Rees’s Denver office, is the current president of APABA, and partners Franz Hardy and Byeongsook Seo are past presidents.