Peggy Nagae ’77: Challenging the Constitutionality of Internment

Peggy Nagae ’77 accepted the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession’s 2017 Spirit of Excellence Award.

“I accept this award knowing that I’m here today because of those who have come before me,” began the speech with which Peggy Nagae ’77 accepted the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession’s 2017 Spirit of Excellence Award.

One of those to whom Nagae referred was Minoru Yasui, the first Japanese American member of the Oregon State Bar. Nagae represented Yasui in a well-known civil rights case that challenged an earlier decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court.

At the age of 25, Nagae explained, Yasui “intentionally violated a military curfew imposed upon Americans of Japanese dissent in order to test its constitutionality in court. He really believed that the courts would vindicate his rights. He spent nine months in solitary confinement in the Multnomah County jail as his case went up to the U.S. Supreme Court—and he lost. The high court said and held that the military curfew and mass incarceration targeting 120,000 Japanese Americans based on their race without due process or equal protection was constitutional because of military necessity. The underlying authority for the incarceration was an executive order signed by President Roosevelt 75 years ago this year.”

Nagae compared that executive order to one President Trump tried to impose in early 2017 preventing citizens of certain countries from entering the United States. She urged the audience not to let happen to others what happened to so many immigrants, including her own parents.

“We know better. We are a stronger community of lawyers. We can make a deciding difference. To do that, we must be brave, and big, and bold,” she said. In 1983, Nagae boldly reopened Yasui’s curfew case, challenging the constitutionality of such government actions upon private citizens without due process. Ultimately, Yasui’s conviction was vacated.

Nagae went on to cofound the Minoru Yasui Tribute Committee and spearhead a successful nomination for a Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded posthumously to Yasui in November 2015 by President Obama. Earlier this year, Nagae helped lead a community effort with the ACLU of Oregon to create a permanent Minoru Yasui Day (March 28) in Oregon.

Nagae was nominated for the Spirit of Excellence Award by the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA). She is a former board member of Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the Center for Asian Pacific Women, and former president of the Asian Bar of Washington and NAPABA.

Nagae spent her first decade after law school working at the Multnomah County Legal Aid and in private practice as a trial attorney, the University of Oregon’s law school as an assistant dean for academic affairs, and the Urban Indian Council as senior trial attorney. In 1988, she founded Peggy Nagae Consulting in Portland. She is currently the COO of White Men as Full Diversity Partners.