Today in 1988: The Civil Liberties Act is signed into law

August 10, 2012

Today in Legal HistoryHidden in the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act was section 8113, which had virtually nothing to do with the Department of Defense.

Instead, the section, entitled “Apology to Native Peoples of the United States,” was exactly that – it “apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.”

A year and a half earlier, the U.S. Senate passed a non-binding resolution, mirroring one passed in the U.S. House of Representatives a year before that, which apologizes “to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws.”

And finally, in 1993, Congress issued a joint resolution “apologiz[ing] to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii.”

As appreciated as these apologies surely were to their respective recipients, the recipients would likely have preferred an apology more in line with the one given to Japanese Americans for their “evacuation, relocation, and internment” during World War II (for more about Japanese internment, check out this post).

Officially known as the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the apology was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan 24 years ago today – on August 10, 1988.

What made the Civil Liberties Act different from the other apologies mentioned earlier?

Although the Act is much longer than any of the other apologies, the only effective difference boils down to one word: money.

Namely, the Civil Liberties Act stipulates that each “eligible individual” be paid $20,000 in restitution.

“Eligible individual” means any living individual of Japanese ancestry (or their spouse or parent) who was “confined, held in custody, relocated, or otherwise deprived of liberty or property” by Japanese internment policies.

This “individual” would also have to have been a U.S. citizen or permanent resident alien at the time of their internment.

Quite a few cases have been filed over whether the claimant is indeed an “eligible individual,” but one case stands out in particular: Jacobs v. Barr.

Jacobs began as a constitutionality challenge to the Civil Liberties Act on the grounds that Arthur Jacobs, a German-American detained in a similar fashion to Japanese-Americans during World War II, was not entitled to restitution, and thus the Act denies him equal protection of the laws.

The court rejected Jacobs’ challenge, finding that Congress had specifically excluded German-Americans (as well as Italian-Americans) from the Act’s payments of restitution.


According to the court, “Congress concluded that Japanese-Americans were detained en masse because of racial prejudice and demagoguery, while German-Americans were detained in small numbers, and only after individual hearings about their loyalty.”

Be that as it may, why were other groups that also received congressional apologies – African-Americans, Native Americans, and Native Hawaiians – denied restitution payments?

Though there are likely a wide variety of factors, the relative recentness of Japanese internment (just over four decades prior to the Act’s passage), along with the U.S. government’s direct responsibility over the event, account for much of the explanation.

To be sure, the U.S. government played a large, if not central role, in the respective sufferings of the African-American, Native American, and Native Hawaiian peoples.

However, these injustices perpetrated by the U.S. government are generally relegated to the pages of history, safely insulating legislators from any sense of responsibility over them.

Unfortunately for these and other racial or ethnic groups hoping for monetary restitution, the further we progress down the timeline away from past atrocities, the further Congress is from providing such restitution.