Peter Irons

Name Peter Irons
Born 1940
Birth Location Salem, Massachusetts

Attorney, political science professor and author who in 1981 uncovered documents proving that government officials during World War II had intentionally suppressed and altered evidence in lawsuits challenging curfew and forced exclusion orders imposed on Japanese Americans. That discovery led to the reopening of the cases of three Nisei who had been convicted for violating the military's wartime orders.

Early Life, College, Activism and Organizing

Peter Irons (1940 - ) was born in Salem, Massachusetts, the eldest of seven children. His family moved often because his father, an engineer for General Electric, was frequently transferred.

The Unitarian Church's teachings about diversity greatly influenced him, and he seriously considered becoming a Unitarian Minister. He decided, however, to attend Antioch College in Ohio, drawn by the school's history of social justice.

At Antioch, he immediately became politically active, joining the Youth Branch of the NAACP and participating in sit-ins at businesses that segregated African Americans. He later joined the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society.

In 1962, unable to pay for college, he became a lobbyist for the United Auto Workers in Washington, D.C. While working for the union, Irons was also involved in the growing movement against the Vietnam War.

Draft Resistance and Imprisonment

In 1960 Irons returned his draft card to the Selective Service and explained that he would not serve in the military because the U.S. allowed racial segregation. Irons's draft board in Cincinnati tried to persuade him to become a conscientious objector. But he rejected the idea because he would have to declare belief in a supreme being, something he felt was government-compelled religion.

In 1964, a federal grand jury indicted Irons for not complying with orders to be inducted for military service. He was convicted and sentenced to three years. Irons appealed. While waiting for his appeal to be decided, he completed his undergraduate studies, graduating from Antioch in 1966 with a degree in sociology. He began a graduate program in sociology at the University of New Hampshire. But a few months later, he lost his appeal and was imprisoned.

In prison, Irons discovered the books of Howard Zinn, a professor at Boston College who had written about race, SNCC, and the Vietnam War. Irons admired Zinn's thinking, and he began to correspond with Zinn. As the date for Irons's probation eligibility approached, he asked Zinn to send him a graduate school application. Zinn responded, explaining that Irons had been admitted to the doctoral program in political science at Boston College with a full scholarship.

Irons was released from prison in February 1969 and started graduate school the day after his release.

Law School, His Own Coram Nobis Lawsuit, and Teaching

Irons received a Ph.D. in 1973, a time when jobs were scarce for new academics. He secured a temporary position teaching night classes at Boston State College. But with an uncertain future, Irons decided to attend Harvard Law School.

While Irons was in law school, the Freedom of Information Act went into effect, and he requested his government records. Among the documents was one indicating that Irons was called for military service early to punish him for draft resistance. He researched legal possibilities to get his conviction reversed and discovered an obscure petition called the writ of error coram nobis . This rarely used legal process is an option only for people who had served their sentences and can prove that the government engaged in misconduct at the time of their trials.

Irons filed a coram nobis petition with the federal court in Cincinnati, the location of his criminal trial. The U.S. Attorney in Cincinnati did not object, and a federal judge granted Irons's petition. His conviction was expunged.

After completing law school in 1978, Irons taught at Boston College Law School and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst's Law and Society Program. Unexpectedly, the University of California, San Diego invited him to apply for a political science professorship. The university quickly hired him, and in 1982 he founded the Earl Warren Civil Rights Project at UC San Diego.

Japanese American Coram Nobis Cases

In 1981, Irons planned to write a book based on newly released FBI records from the early 20th century, a period when the agency targeted political radicals. However, when he visited the National Archives to review the materials, he realized that going through the 5,000 uncatalogued rolls of microfilm would be unmanageable. In search of a new book topic, he saw a reference in a book on Constitutional history to the cases of Japanese Americans who challenged World War II orders. He decided his next book would focus on how attorneys on both sides of these cases developed strategies and how the Supreme Court dealt with the lawsuits.

Beginning his research, Irons met Aiko Yoshinaga-Herzig , a researcher for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). They agreed to share information and began working collaboratively.

In the first file from the Justice Department archives he reviewed, Irons discovered a memo in which Edward Ennis , director of the Alien Enemy Control Unit, told Solicitor General Charles Fahy that the government had information refuting a War Department report claiming that Japanese Americans were disloyal. Ennis argued that withholding the information from the U.S. Supreme Court might approximate suppression of evidence.

Irons was stunned because he realized that this document revealed government wrongdoing. He uncovered other documents showing that government attorneys engaged in legal misconduct.

Citing these documents, Irons testified before the CWRIC and raised the possibility that Fred Korematsu , Gordon Hirabayashi , and Min Yasui , the three Nisei convicted during World War II for violating the military's orders, might reopen their cases through the coram nobis process.

Irons located Hirabayashi and Yasui who agreed to reopen their cases. But Korematsu was hesitant. After Irons visited Korematsu in 1982 and showed him the evidence of the government's misconduct, Korematsu agreed.

Irons realized that he could not handle all three cases, and he wanted Japanese Americans to take the lead. So he asked Yasui for the names of West Coast attorneys. Yasui referred him to Nisei attorney Frank Chuman , who in turn referred Irons to Dale Minami , a young Sansei attorney based in Oakland. Minami recruited other attorneys in San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, many of whom were already involved in the movement for Japanese American redress.

The attorneys decided to file three petitions in each of the district courts where Korematsu, Hirabayashi, and Yasui were originally convicted. Although Irons was not directly involved in the legal teams representing Yasui and Hirabayashi, he became a key member of Korematsu's coram nobis team. He worked with Sansei attorney Lorraine Bannai to coordinate evidence and documents. He traveled to San Francisco weekly during the latter half of 1982 to work on the case, in addition to his full-time teaching responsibilities at UC San Diego. In 1983, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel overturned Korematsu's conviction.

Work as an Academic and Author

After Korematsu's victory, Irons continued teaching at UC San Diego. In 1988, he was named as the first Raoul Wallenberg Distinguished Visiting Professor of Human Rights at Rutgers University. He has lectured on constitutional law and civil liberties at more than 20 law schools, including Harvard, Yale, UC Berkeley, and Stanford.

Irons is the author, co-author, and editor of 13 books on civil rights and the Constitution, including two, Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases . and Justice Delayed , about the Japanese American coram nobis cases .

He retired from UC San Diego in 2004 but continues to write books on Constitutional issues.

Authored by Stan Yogi , Writer, Oakland, California

For More Information

Daniels, Roger. The Japanese American Cases: The Rule of Law in Time of War . Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2013.

Irons, Peter. Interview by Alice Ito and Lorraine Bannai. October 25, 27, 2000. Densho Digital Repository.

University of California, San Diego, Department of Political Science faculty webpage.

Last updated May 14, 2024, 4:08 p.m..