WASHINGTON — A U.S. Court of Appeals panel today reinstated a suit brought on behalf of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans removed from their homes and detained in camps in World War II.
The three-judge panel, voting 2 to 1, said the lower court erred when it dismissed a suit seeking $24 billion on the ground that the six-year statute of limitations had expired.
Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer of U.S. District Court here had ruled that the lawsuit was barred by a six-year statute of limitations on suits against the government.
"It may be that timely claims on their behalf would have prevailed," Oberdorfer wrote May 17, 1984. "But it is now close to 40 years after the camps were closed, and almost that long after the facts essential to those claims were published. Much time has passed, memories have dimmed and many of the actors have died."
However, the appellate court said in a 56-page opinion written by Judge J. Skelly Wright: "The United States cannot be presumed to be amenable to suit. Fortunately, the founders provided that the right to obtain just compensation for the taking of one's property should remain inviolate.
"In so doing, they no doubt assumed that the normal statutes of limitations would apply," said Wright, who was joined by Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "But they also most certainly assumed that the leaders of this republic would act truthfully. In the main, history has proven the founders correct."
However, the majority said, the nation has learned that "extraordinary injustice can provoke extraordinary acts of concealment."
"Where such concealment is alleged it ill behooves the government of a free people to evade an honest accounting. Should such concealment be proven here, those individuals who have not received awards . . . should be free to press this cause to its conclusion," the appeals court said.
In his oral arguments, Benjamin Zelenko, a lawyer for the National Council for Japanese-American Redress, said the U.S. government had concealed evidence that the internees posed no threat to national security.