Fujii v. California


The 1952 California Supreme Court case Fujii v. California (38 Cal 2nd 718) overturned California's historic Alien Land Act, which barred Japanese and other Asian aliens "ineligible to citizenship" from owning agricultural property. Together with Masaoka v. California, Fujii finally put a stop to decades of legal discrimination against Asians. The Fujii case also led to a serious public controversy over whether the United Nations Charter represented a legal basis for striking down state-sponsored discrimination.

Land Law Background

The Fujii case grew out of California's "Alien Land Act," enacted in 1913, further amended in 1920, and originally upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court three years later. According to this law (and the copycat laws subsequently enacted in other Western states) Japanese and other Asian immigrants who were "ineligible for citizenship" under federal law were forbidden to own agricultural property, although provisions of the law limiting the right of aliens to act as guardians of property for minor citizens were successfully challenged in court. The law was widely evaded and seldom enforced during the prewar period. However, following the wartime exclusion of West Coast Japanese Americans, California legislators enacted provisions in 1944 and 1945 providing funding for "escheat" suits to challenge property ownership by Japanese aliens. The goal of the suits was to express hostility to Japanese Americans and discourage them from returning to California after their release from camp. Within a few years, some 59 cases had been brought. Even though by 1946 there were barely 10,000 "aliens ineligible to citizenship" farming in California, most of whom were elderly, these escheat proceedings left title to land uncertain, and made it onerous and expensive for all Japanese Americans to obtain insurance or secure funding for improvements. In numerous cases, Japanese American families were forced to pay a ransom to the state, usually half the assessed value of the land, in order to quiet title—a profitable racket for the state of California.

In mid-1945, Kajiro and Fred Oyama challenged the law in court, with assistance from the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). In January 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in their favor in the landmark constitutional case Oyama v. California. However, the Court's majority opinion struck down the law based on the equal rights of American citizens of Japanese ancestry to receive property from their alien parents. Although California's attorney general, recognizing that the law would likely not stand, froze all escheat suits following the Oyama decision, the Alien Land Act remained theoretically valid as applied against Japanese aliens.

Mounting a Test Case

It was in the face of this uncertainty that Sei Fujii decided to undertake a test case to determine the law's constitutionality. Fujii, who had immigrated to the United States from Japan as a young man in 1903, was a visible figure in Los Angeles's Little Tokyo, most notably as editor of the crusading daily newspaper Kashu Mainichi. With assistance from J. Marion Wright, his onetime law school classmate, and the American Civil Liberties Union (although not the JACL, which he had long opposed) Fujii purchased a lot in the Boyle Heights district and filed suit to clear title so that he could build a home there. While this hardly constituted agricultural land, California's Attorney General Fred Howser stepped into the case and argued that under the Alien Land Act Fujii could not purchase any property.

The Fujii case was argued before Judge Wilbur C. Curtis in the Los Angeles Superior Court, who in March 1949 issued a ruling upholding the state law. Fujii and Wright then appealed to the state supreme court, which remanded the case to the appellate level. Fujii and Wright argued that the Alien Land Act represented race-based discrimination, which was forbidden both under the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection clause and the United Nations Charter. Fujii's case was strengthened by the Oregon Supreme Court, which struck down that state's alien land law in Kenji Namba v. McCourt (1949), and by a favorable Superior Court ruling in Masaoka v. California, which addressed the right of citizens to make gifts of property to alien parents. Nevertheless, most observers expected the California court to uphold the law, since the U.S. Supreme Court had not specifically overturned its original 1920s rulings establishing the law's constitutionality, and because the court had previously validated it in Oyama.

In a surprise ruling, in April 1950 a three-judge panel of the California's District Court of Appeal unanimously overturned Curtis's lower court ruling. In his opinion, Judge Emmet J. Wilson found that the alien land law was unconstitutional because it contravened Chapter I, Section I of the United Nations Charter, which stated that one purpose of the United Nations was "promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion." Since the United States had ratified the Charter in 1945, it took the form of an international treaty whose provisions took precedence over domestic laws. The law likewise contravened the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the US was a signatory.

The ruling unleashed a storm of controversy nationwide. While the Alien Land Act itself found few defenders, legal scholars and political thinkers nevertheless expressed dismay over the court's contention that the UN Charter had become fundamental law. Isolationists who worried about encroachments on national sovereignty denounced the ruling as interference with the nation's domestic institutions. (Conversely, Admiral Chester Nimitz, an internationalist, praised the decision as demonstrating American support for the United Nations). Harvard law professor Manley Hudson argued in an influential law journal article that the court's ruling was mistaken. The provisions of the UN Charter, he determined, were addressed to the political departments of member states, not their judiciaries. The provisions were clearly not "self-executing" in the manner of a treaty, but rather represented a goal to be achieved by legislation.

Attorney General Howser appealed the ruling to California's Supreme Court. In April 1952, by a narrow 4-3 majority, the California high court struck down the Alien Land Act. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Phil Gibson found that the law violated the 14th Amendment, since it had been created and enforced "as an instrument for effectuating racial discrimination." Although he recognized that the U.S. Supreme Court had not specifically overruled its previous decisions on the Act's constitutionality, he proclaimed that following the Oyama and Takahashi decisions, they could no longer be considered controlling precedent. At the same time, in a widely quoted and praised section of the ruling, Gibson considered and rejected the argument that the law was invalidated by the UN Charter, since the provisions of the Charter were "not intended to supersede existing domestic legislation." State officials decided not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, no doubt realizing that the appeal would likely be futile.

The state supreme court rulings in Fujii v. California and Masaoka v. California (1952), decided shortly afterwards, eliminated the last vestiges of the Alien Land Act. Though symbolically important, their actual impact was questionable, as they came just weeks before Congress passed the 1952 McCarran-Walter Immigration Act, which eliminated the legal category of "immigrant ineligible to citizenship" on which the law had been based.

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Brilliant, Mark. The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941-1978. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Hudson, Manley O. "Charter Provisions on Human Rights in American Law." American Journal of International Law 44 (1950): 543-48.

Chuman, Frank F. The Bamboo People: The Law and Japanese-Americans. Del Mar, CA, Publisher's Inc., 1976.

Robinson, Greg. After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.