Joan Z. Bernstein


Name Joan Z. "Jodie" Bernstein
Born March 17 1926
Birth Location Galesburg, Illinois

Lawyer and chairperson of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). Pioneering lawyer Joan Z. "Jodie" Bernstein (1926– ) enjoyed a long legal career in both the public and private sector specializing in the consumer protection and environmental fields. She was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the CWRIC and led the commission's efforts to conduct hearings and research and complete a report and recommendations on the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans that subsequently led to the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

Born as Joan Zeldes in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1926, she was the first child of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Her father was a tailor who lost had his business during the Depression, but who eventually ran a successful tavern after the repeal of prohibition. Young Joan graduated from Galesburg High, then attended the University of Wisconsin, where she graduated in 1948 with a degree in economics. She went on to Yale Law School, graduating in 1951. Despite the fact that few mainstream law firms would hire either women or Jews, she landed a position with the New York firm Sherman and Sterling. After marrying physician Lionel Bernstein, she moved to Chicago and worked briefly for the firm Schiff, Hardin & Waite. The couple subsequently had three children, and she became a stay-at-home mother for thirteen years.

In 1967, the family moved to Washington, D.C. when Lionel took a position with the Veterans Administration. Joan reentered the work force, initially worked with a former classmate who was a sole practitioner, and in 1970, took a position in the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the Federal Trade Commission, where she eventually rose to acting director. After a brief stint back in private practice, she took a position with the Carter administration as the general counsel for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1977, moving to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) in 1979. While at HEW, she was one of President Carter's three appointees to the CWRIC. She left HEW after the election of Ronald Reagan, joining the firm Wald, Harkrader & Ross in January 1981.

The only woman among the nine commissioners of the CWRIC, she was elected its chair. She oversaw the hiring of staff, bringing on attorney Angus Macbeth, with whom she had worked closely while at the EPA. He would serve as the primary author of the commission's report, Personal Justice Denied. She was a supporter of monetary compensation and defended the commission's findings before a hostile house subcommittee during the debate over redress legislation, though she also opposed the commission's use of the term "concentration camp" to refer to the camps in which Japanese Americans were detained.

Bernstein subsequently served as general counsel for Chemical Waste Management and senior vice president of Waste Management, Inc. In 1995, she was appointed director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the Federal Trade Commission, where she became known for pioneering methods of fighting online fraud. She retired in 2001. She was awarded the Constitutional Rights Award by the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation in 2008 and the Lifetime Achievement Award by The American Lawyer in 2009.

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

Joan Z. Bernstein oral history. Oral History Project, The Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit, 2007. Interview by Vicki Jackson, June 1, July 7, December 4, 1998; February 11, May 12, and July 8, 1999, and May 1, 2000. http://www.dcchs.org/JoanZBernstein/joanzbernstein_complete.pdf.

Murray, Alice Yang. Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.

"YLW and ACS Present Judge Pat Wald '51 and Jodie Bernstein '51." Video of an April 2013 symposium at Yale Law School featuring two pioneering women lawyers, http://vimeo.com/64903384.