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Title: Lorraine Bannai Interview
Narrator: Lorraine Bannai
Interviewers: Margaret Chon (primary), Alice Ito (secondary)
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: March 23 & 24, 2000
Densho ID: denshovh-blorraine-01-0038

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MC: I'm wondering whether you can share with us some of the ways that this experience of participating in the coram nobis litigation changed you?

LB: Certainly I think it's had a tremendous impact on my life and my career. I started working on this case when I was one or two years fresh out of law school. Many people would call this the case of a lifetime, and to have that quote, "case of a lifetime" as soon as you get out of law school is really pretty amazing. It taught me so many things that have served me on a regular basis. It certainly taught me about how politics relates to the law, and how inextricably linked political decisions are from legal decisions. It gave me a perspective on the law that I think I bring to my work constantly, that there's a relationship between law, politics, economics, social structures, prejudice. The law embodies everything that exists in society. It is not a separate entity, and that again, the law is an elastic entity to the extent that it can and should be used as a tool to effectuate social change. Certainly the case gave me that perspective. In other words, kind of a critical view of the law rather than just an accepting view of the law.

Again, it taught me the value of working in a collective, working with other people to accomplish certain ends, and the true lesson that when you get many people working on one project, the result can be much more powerful than the work of all of those people acting individually. It taught me the value of coalition work between groups, that when we have civil rights issues, when we have issues affecting one particular group and they are discriminated against or marginalized, it is a marginalization that affects everybody.

It was a powerful lesson to see that this was not viewed as a Japanese American issue. It was viewed as an American issue. It was viewed as an issue for Jews, for blacks, for Hispanics, for any group that might suffer a similar fate or could suffer a similar fate. It resonated with people as a Constitutional civil rights issue rather than a special interest issue.

It also certainly taught me much about how important it is to be a good lawyer. It is one thing to be a political lawyer. It's one thing to have great ideals and a righteous cause, but you must of paramount importance, be a good lawyer and know how to do your work well. When we were working on the case, it might seem to some that it was lots of fun and glory. It was certainly lots of fun, but it was also lots of really exceptional, good legal research, good legal writing, good analytical thinking, and certainly one of the most powerful things I took from my work with this particular team, is they were among the smartest people I've ever worked with in my life.

I think also probably more personally it gave me a sense of confidence I don't know if I would have otherwise acquired. I felt as a result of doing this case, that I could be part of a team that took on the U.S. Government, that took on a cause involving a whole people, and that you could be successful at that, and that one should not say, "This is something I cannot do because I'm not capable of it." I think one thing that I think of when I look back on not only the legal team, but also Fred as our client, is that ordinary people rise to extraordinary levels under extraordinary circumstances. And while being young and freshly out of law school, one might think you shouldn't take on a case like this, I think the case brought out the best in everybody who worked on the team and everybody who was associated with the team and in Fred himself. As I mentioned earlier, he said that the one thing he did not want to do when we started the case was to speak in public or to speak to the press. And as he started to see what we were doing, going to the press, doing fundraising, doing speaking engagements to raise money for the case, in addition to working late nights and weekends on the case itself, I recall him mentioning at some point he just couldn't sit by and not do anything. And he found it in himself to say, I need to help. I need to be part of this case and help this team that's working so hard for me. And he went out there and started giving speeches and talking to the press and going out to raise money for the team, overcoming something that he really, really was opposed to doing at first. So I think certainly the case on a personal level gave me much more confidence.

MC: Do you take some of those lessons with you as you, into your current work, post-coram nobis litigation?

LB: Very much so. Certainly even now, eighteen years later, it's been eighteen years since the case was decided, I'm still involved in the case in some ways. Members of the team and Fred continue to travel around the country, speaking about the case, writing about the case, doing work related to the case, speaking at college classes, high school classes, or whatever. It's still a very powerful issue for people to hear about. So in a direct way, I'm still involved in the case somewhat. In an indirect way, certainly when I think about the law, I think about it with the lessons that I learned from working on that particular case and in working with law students, which I do right now. It's always very important for me that they understand how to put the law in a social context, that they can't look at the law in a vacuum. And certainly that is one thing that I think I bring to my work.

I think the other thing is that students need to find their place in the law, that maybe being a big corporate downtown lawyer is their place, maybe working for legal services is their place, maybe working in government is their place, but they need to find a place where they fit in the law certainly, and not just take a job because it makes them money. Certainly also the students need to think critically about the law, question the law, ask themselves whether the law is the way it should be or whether they have should have a role in making it more just. So many of the lessons come up every day.

<End Segment 38> - Copyright © 2000 Densho. All Rights Reserved.