James C. Purcell

Name James C. Purcell
Born 1906
Died 1991
Birth Location San Francisco

Attorney who represented Mitsuye Endo in a lawsuit contesting the indefinite detention of Japanese Americans during World War II. He also represented Nisei civil servants dismissed by the State of California after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and the family of Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) leader Mike Masaoka in a successful challenge to California's Alien Land Law . [1]

Early Life

James C. Purcell (1906-1991) was born in San Francisco, the eldest of three children. His father was a guard at Folsom Prison, and Purcell's family lived on the prison grounds. He attended Stanford University as both an undergraduate and law student and received his law degree in 1930.

Purcell joined the firm of well-known San Francisco attorney Vincent Hallinan and practiced both criminal and civil law. A few years later, he opened his own firm with fellow attorney William Ferriter. During his early years in private practice, Purcell met Saburo Kido , a lawyer working in the Japanese American community, and he represented some of Kido's clients in trials and court proceedings.

Representing Suspended Nisei Civil Servants

In early 1942, Kido, who was JACL President, appealed to Purcell to help Nisei who were summarily suspended en mass from their jobs with the state of California and faced the same blanket charges impugning their loyalty. No attorney would take on their case. Purcell met with the workers and agreed to represent them.

After the Nisei civil servants were incarcerated, the state amended the charges against them, stating that they were not available for work and that they held dual citizenship with Japan and falsely stated they were U.S. citizens on their employment applications.

In late 1943, the State Personnel Board tried to set trial dates to take advantage of the fact that it would be very difficult for the plaintiffs to appear. Purcell reached an agreement with the state to postpone the cases until exclusion orders were lifted or until the end of the war, whichever occurred first.

After the war, Purcell and Ferriter contacted the Nisei civil servants, many of whom had not returned to California. Most were not interested in regaining their former jobs, but they did want the state to admit error in charging them with disloyalty. In 1946, the state offered the dismissed Nisei their old jobs but gave them 10 days to report to work. Only a few were willing and able to return. The state eventually compensated the employees for lost wages but only for the short period between their suspensions and their forced removal from the Sacramento area. [2]

Ex Parte Endo Case

Soon after the government forced Nikkei into camps, Purcell needed the signatures of two Nisei clients on legal documents and visited them at the Tanforan Assembly Center. He was shocked that they and their children were forced to live in a horse stall. He later stated that because he grew up at Folsom Prison, he knew what a prison looked like, and the conditions at Tanforan were worse than a prison. [3]

Purcell was determined to bring a habeas corpus lawsuit demanding the release of the imprisoned Japanese Americans. Freeing the Nikkei would also allow his state employee clients to pursue their legal fight against dismissal.

To find the most sympathetic plaintiff, Purcell sent a questionnaire to the former state workers. He found the ideal plaintiff in Mitsuye Endo, a Nisei who had worked for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Endo did not speak or read Japanese, had never been to Japan, was raised a Methodist, and had a brother in the U.S. Army.

On July 12, 1942, Purcell filed a habeas corpus petition in federal district court in San Francisco. Purcell never met Endo in person; he obtained permission to represent her by correspondence. [4]

The U.S. Supreme Court eventually heard the case, Ex Parte Endo , and Purcell made his sole appearance before the high court. The justices ruled unanimously in Endo's favor.

Purcell and his law partner Ferriter covered all the expenses of the litigation and did not charge fees.

Postwar Cases and Redress Advocacy

After World War II, several Nikkei asked Purcell for legal help in a variety of cases, including assistance and representation navigating through the Japanese Evacuation Claims Act , a federal program which provided limited compensation for property loss. The government required Nikkei to submit documentation of their losses. But many had lost records in the rush to settle business affairs prior to their forced removal. Some of the cases took years to settle.

Purcell represented a number of Issei who faced land confiscation for allegedly violating California's Alien Land Law , which barred Issei from owning and leasing land. He also worked with attorney A.L. Wirin to submit an amicus brief on behalf of the JACL in People v. Oyama , a challenge to California's Alien Land Law. After the California Supreme Court rejected the Oyama family's claim that Issei had a right to own land, Purcell took the position that the Alien Land Law violated the rights of the Nisei child in whose name the land was purchased. The United States Supreme Court accepted this argument, ruling in the Oyamas' favor and invalidating a key component of the law.

In 1950, Purcell represented the family of JACL leader Mike Masaoka in a lawsuit contesting California's remaining ban on Issei land ownership. Masaoka and his five brothers purchased a lot in Pasadena and then transferred title to their widowed mother, an Issei. In 1952, the California Supreme Court, basing its decision on a contemporaneous case, ruled that the Alien Land Law was unconstitutional. After the Masaoka victory, Purcell represented a number of Issei in proceedings to verify their legal ownership of land and to ensure that local authorities would not threaten confiscation of their property because of ignorance about the court's decision.

In 1981, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians invited Purcell to testify at its San Francisco hearing where he said that the grave wrong that Japanese Americans suffered deserved an equivalent remedy. He advocated for substantial monetary redress.

Purcell also provided information to California State Assembly member Patrick Johnston, who introduced legislation which passed in 1982 to provide $5,000 to 314 surviving Japanese Americans who were wrongfully terminated as California state workers in 1942.

Purcell practiced law into his 80s, handling criminal and civil case and representing unions, political figures and businesses. He passed away at the age of 84.

Authored by Stan Yogi , Writer, Oakland, California

For More Information

Bill Hosokawa. Nisei: The Quiet Americans . New York: William Morrow and Company, 1969.

Irons, Peter. Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases . New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Ouchida, Elissa Kikuye. "Nisei Employees v. California State Personnel Board: A Journal of Ex Parte Mitsuye Endo , 1942-1947." Pan Japan: The International Journal of the Japanese Diaspora 7:1-2 (Spring/Fall 2011): 1-54.


  1. This article is based in part on an interview with Kathleen Purcell, James Purcell's daughter, July 1, 2014.
  2. Elissa Kikuye Ouchida, "Nisei Employees v. California State Personnel Board: A Journal of Ex Parte Mitsuye Endo, 1942-1947," Pan Japan: The International Journal of the Japanese Diaspora 7.1-2 (Spring/Fall 2011): 1-54.
  3. Letter from James C. Purcell to Peter Linzer, associate professor of law, University of Cincinnati, June 11, 1975, copy of letter provided to the author by Kathleen Purcell; Peter Irons, Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983): 101-02.
  4. In the previously cited letter to Peter Linzer, Purcell wrote, "I have never met or seen Mitsuye Endo." In her oral history included in And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps , edited by John Tateishi (New York: Random House, 1984), 60–61, Mitsyue Endo stated, "I never talked to Purcell—never met the man." However, Peter Irons writes in Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 102, based on an interview with Purcell: "Purcell met his client only once during the entire course of her case, during an interrogation conducted by WRA solicitor Philip Glick, who offered to release her from internment in return for an agreement that she would not return to the 'restricted area' of the West Coast, which included all of California."

Last updated July 29, 2020, 5:39 p.m..