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William Denman: A Voice of Dissent on the Courts - Part 1

Judge William Denman (From The Bancroft Library)

The U.S. judicial system, by and large, failed to protect the rights of the Japanese American community during World War II. Although the Justice Department, led by Attorney General Francis Biddle, opposed the forced removal of U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry, in the end President Roosevelt approved mass removal, leading to mass incarceration. As Peter Irons noted in his landmark study Justice At War, the Supreme Court’s subsequent rulings in the cases of Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, and Fred Korematsu, during which the government suppressed and manipulated evidence, represented a gross injustice towards Japanese Americans, one that endangered the rights of all American citizens.

US Circuit Court Judge William Denman from Press Reference Library Notables of the West, Volume II, 1915, page 95.

Although most of the Supreme Court and lower court judges before whom the “internment cases” were tried upheld the legality of the military’s orders, a few figures in the legal community opposed the executive orders as unconstitutional and a tool to undermine democracy. (As noted in a DN article, legal scholar Eugene Rostow called the incarceration “our worst wartime mistake”). Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote in his dissent in Korematsu vs. United States that Executive Order 9066 was a “loaded weapon” that could be used in the future to violate civil liberties, even as Justice Frank Murphy condemned mass removal as racist. A less renowned jurist who ruled against Executive Order 9066 was Judge William Denman, one of longest serving judges on the famed 9th Circuit Court. Denman’s career as an anti-corruption lawyer and as a personal friend of Franklin Roosevelt and political supporter of the New Deal molded him into a defender of the underprivileged, and influenced his subsequent rulings in several key cases in support of Japanese Americans and other minority groups.

William Denman was born in San Francisco on November 7, 1872, to a prominent California political family. His father was James Denman, a San Francisco supervisor known as the “father” of San Francisco’s public school system, and his mother was Helen Virginia Denman. A distant cousin, James D. Phelan, built his career as Mayor of San Francisco on anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese platforms, and later served as a US. Senator from California from 1915 to 1921.

After graduating Lowell High School in San Francisco in 1890, William Denman attended University of California, Berkeley. Upon receiving a Bachelor of Letters degree, Denman enrolled in Harvard Law School, where he completed his Bachelor of Law (now equivalent of a J.D.) in 1897. After completing law school, Denman returned to San Francisco to open a private practice, as well as lecturing as a visiting professor at the UC Hastings College of Law from 1902 to 1903.

In 1898, rumors began to circulate in the local papers of Denman’s engagement to Florence Blythe, the illegitimate daughter of wealthy land tycoon Thomas Blythe. Florence Blythe became the subject of a media frenzy following her inheritance of Thomas Blythe’s multi-million dollar estate. Denman immediately went to the press to deny the rumors. In 1907, Denman married Leslie Van Ness. The couple had no children.

During his time in San Francisco, Denman witnessed the destruction of San Francisco during the Great 1906 Earthquake. The earthquake would deeply impact his life, and later influenced his attitudes in regards to dealing with emergency conditions. In the wake of the Earthquake, Denman began to involve himself in local politics, as a pro-labor Democrat. In 1908, San Francisco Mayor Edward Robeson Taylor appointed Denman to chair a committee formed to deal with corruption within municipal politics. (Taylor himself had become Mayor the previous year, following the conviction on corruption charges of incumbent mayor Eugene Schmitz). Denman helped thwart Abe Ruef’s corruption ring among the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

At the same time, Denman organized a statewide movement to propose legislation allowing for the nonpartisan election of judges to the state courts, a provision eventually enacted in 1911. Denman championed Progressive causes such as workman’s compensation and the protection of worker’s rights. When business groups sued to overturn California’s eight-hour law for women workers, Governor Hiram Johnson asked Denman to lead the defense. Denman successfully defended the law before California’s state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Ships Are Coming, United States Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation. Circa 1917 and circa 1918

During this same period, Denman lobbied President Woodrow Wilson to create a shipping board in order to help increase the number of U.S. ships in preparation for war. Congress passed the U.S. Shipping Act in 1916 - a bill that was drafted with Denman’s help. President Wilson then nominated Denman as the first chairman of the newly-established the U.S. Shipping Board. Denman presided over the board from December 1916 until July 1917, when he resigned following a dispute with fellow board members over disputes regarding the construction of wooden boats.

According Denman, the dispute centered on his disagreement with General George Goethals, the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster, over the pricing and planning of constructing the wooden fleet. Goethals agreed to purchasing overpriced steel for the ships that charged the U.S. government by 300 million dollars. Worse yet, Denman argued, Goethals ordered the construction of 40 slipways at Hog Island Shipyard before any infrastructure was built to launch the ships. The dispute spilled over into the press, leading Denman and Goethals to both resign.

Denman also resigned due to the board’s growing preferential treatment towards British shipping. During the following years, Denman accused the British government and Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour of duplicitous activities designed to leverage money from the American government and control American shipping.

In the years following World War I, Denman returned to private practice. In addition to his regular work as an attorney, Denman frequently spent time with the elites of San Francisco. On several occasions, he met with his distant relative, Senator James Phelan. Through his connections in the Democratic party, Denman also became a close friend of Franklin Roosevelt.

The election of 1932 ushered in a new chapter of William Denman’s life. Denman became one of the strongest advocates of the New Deal and an active member of the Roosevelt administration. In 1933 Denman was appointed a senior official in the National Recovery Administration, a regulatory agency tasked with regulating businesses and reducing competition. During his time with the National Recovery Administration, Denman called for stronger regulation of the fishing industry, in particular sardines, due to global fears of overfishing. (In 1935, after Denman had left the NRA, the Supreme Court struck down the law forming the agency as unconstitutional).

In March 1935, Denman was appointed by President Roosevelt to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the highest federal court on the West Coast. At first, Denman was one of only four members of the 9th Circuit’s bench. He called on Roosevelt and Congress to expand the number of judges on the Circuit Court, so as to reduce the existing judges’ massive workload. Denman’s efforts paid off in April 1937, when two more judges were added to the bench. The reorganization presaged President Roosevelt’s own failed plan to expand the Supreme Court via the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937, known to its critics as the “Court packing bill,” though Roosevelt’s goal was in fact to make a Court more friendly to New Deal legislation.

Judge William Denman sworn in. (From The Bancroft Library)

While William Denman had not had much involvement with Japanese Americans or issues of National Security before 1941, they would play a large part in his jurisprudence afterwards. Following U.S. entry in World War II, Denman found himself at odds almost immediately with the head of the Army’s Western Defense Command, Lieutenant General John Dewitt. Historian Peters Irons noted in his work Justice At War that Denman “harbored…a deep suspicion that military officials were lax in their civil defense planning,” and the prospect of Japanese aerial bombardments of San Francisco disturbed Denman.

On July 15, 1942, Judge Denman began writing various members of the War Department with complaints about General John Dewitt’s lack of civil defense preparation for San Francisco. Denman insisted that Dewitt’s incompetence created the conditions for a perfect storm, and compared the impact of a potential bombing of San Francisco to the destruction of Tokyo in 1923. In his letters to Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, Denman argued that the thick fog that blankets San Francisco during the summer could camouflage Japanese bombers, and cited the bombing of Dutch Harbor, Alaska as an example of what could happen if more precautions were not taken. A week later, McCloy responded to Denman’s letter with a defense of Dewitt’s efforts, stating his handling of the incarceration of Japanese Americans attested to his character. Angered by McCloy’s response, Denman took matters into his own hands.

On July 31, 1942, Denman made public his correspondence with Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy regarding Dewitt’s plan for evacuating San Francisco in the event of an aerial bombing. Denman accused Dewitt of having no plan in the event of a bombing, and called his unpreparedness “cruel.” Denman sent his correspondence to several members of Roosevelt’s cabinet, including Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, and compiled his correspondence into a pamphlet. In his letter to Ickes, Denman recounted his previous experience with the War Shipping Board during World War I as a parallel to his frustration with Dewitt. Denman argued that, like General George Goethals before, General Dewitt was more concerned with maintaining his reputation than protecting the well-being of U.S. citizens.

The story of Denman’s campaign against Dewitt attracted the attention of several West Coast papers, and was reprinted throughout Los Angeles and San Francisco. Noted journalist Drew Pearson called to attention Denman’s warnings in his Washington Merry-Go-Round column, and applauded Denman’s calls for preparedness.

To be continued...


© 2022 Jonathan van Harmelen

Justice William Denman US 9th Circuit Court