Hans Zimmerman case


The habeas corpus case of Dr. Hans Zimmerman represented the first legal challenge to the arbitrary detention of U.S. citizens by military authorities during World War II, and served as a forerunner to legal challenges by Japanese Americans to mass confinement.

In the wake of the Pearl Harbor raid and the U.S. declaration of war on Japan, army commanders in Hawai'i imposed military government and suspended habeas corpus. In the days that followed, one of those marked for detention for alleged subversive activities was Dr. Hans Zimmerman, a naturalized citizen and U.S. Army veteran of German ancestry who was a naturopathic physician in Honolulu. After being called in for questioning after December 7, Zimmerman was held incommunicado alongside Japanese American and other internees at the Sand Island detention camp. On December 19, 1942, he was examined in a 10-minute proceeding by a hearing board, which refused to inform him of the charges against him. Despite Zimmerman's own testimony that he did not like Hitler and statements from character witnesses, notably future U.S. Congressional Delegate Joseph E. Farrington, the board decided to hold him indefinitely. In February 1942, he was scheduled to be shipped to the mainland for confinement. Zimmerman's wife Clara submitted a petition on his behalf for a writ of habeas corpus to the United States District Court in Honolulu. On February 19, 1942 (Ironically, the same day that President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066) Federal Judge Delbert E. Metzger issued a ruling denying the writ. Metzger explained that he believed the writ should be issued as a matter of law, but was constrained to obey the military governor. "I feel the court is under duress and is not able to carry out the functions of the court as is its duty."

Following Metzger's ruling, Zimmerman was sent from Sand Island for continued detention at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin—the same base that would soon be used for training the Nisei soldiers of the 100th Battalion. Clara Zimmerman followed him to the mainland. With the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union, she brought a new habeas corpus petition there and obtained a writ. At the suggestion of the Provost Marshal General's office, General Delos Emmons, the military governor of Hawai'i, then ordered Zimmerman shipped swiftly back to Hawai'i, where he could be confined under martial law. His lawyers proceeded to appeal Metzger's original denial to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. ACLU lawyer A.L. Wirin submitted a brief amicus curiae in support. Meanwhile, the army accepted the offer of California Attorney General Earl Warren to submit an amicus in support of martial law in Hawai'i. Warren, a primary instigator of the removal of Japanese Americans, stated in his amicus that he welcomed further martial law in California.

In October 1942, the Ninth Circuit denied Zimmerman's petition on the grounds that the prisoner had been given a hearing the previous December by the military commission. Soon after, the ACLU announced that it would file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. In order to avoid a hearing of the case by the high court, in which the army would have to present its (nonexistent) charges, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy ordered Zimmerman released. It was not until March 1943, however, that he was actually freed from custody, barred from Hawai'i for the duration, and deposited in San Francisco.

Following the end of World War II, Zimmerman returned to Hawai'i. In 1950, (with representation again by A.L. Wirin) he brought a case in federal court against General Emmons and other Hawai'i officials for his unlawful detention, which he claimed had caused him "humiliation and disgrace." General Emmons (who agreed to testify as part of a deal whereby he would be absolved from personal liability should he lose) stated during his testimony that he had never considered Dr. Zimmerman a spy or saboteur, and had no evidence against him but had ordered him interned as "potentially dangerous" on the advice of intelligence officers. Zimmerman himself testified that military rule in Hawai'i was akin to a "gestapo setup" without any semblance of justice. On December 23, 1950, the jury found in favor of General Emmons. Several observers criticized presiding judge Paul J. McCormick for giving contradictory and confusing instructions to the jury, which had encouraged them to find in Emmons' favor. Zimmerman died in Hawai'i in 1979.

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Anthony, J. Garner. Hawaii Under Army Rule. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1955.

Robinson, Greg. A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Scheiber, Harry N., and Jane L. Scheiber. "Bayonets in Paradise: A Half-Century Retrospect on Martial Law in Hawaii, 1941–46." University of Hawai'i Law Review 19 (1998): 477–648.