Feds argue against law allowing slave labor lawsuits

By Chelsea J. Carter, The Associated Press
Thursday July 11, 2002

SANTA ANA — The U.S. government urged a California appeals court Wednesday to throw out slave labor lawsuits brought by World War II prisoners of war against Japanese companies, arguing a state law that allows such action is unconstitutional. 

The government argued the 1999 law allowing wartime forced-labor victims to seek redress against multinational firms that operate in the state interfered with the country’s foreign affairs powers. 

“This is a power California has assumed but is allocated to the federal government,” federal attorney Douglas Hallward-Driemeier told a three-judge panel, which was expected to issue a ruling sometime before November. 

But state Deputy Attorney General Angela Sierra argued the state law did not interfere with the country’s ability to make decisions about foreign affairs. 

She said the law only extended the statute of limitations for past crimes and had “nothing to do with the present Japanese government.” She said it created a forum for personal injury claims. 

“We believe California does have the constitutional authority to enact this statute,” Sierra said. 

At stake in the judges’ decision is the fate of lawsuits brought by former American soldiers who say they were forced to work for Japanese companies, including Mitsubishi Corp. and Mitsui & Co., in mines and factories without pay, adequate food or medical care. 

The U.S. departments of State and Justice have contended the lawsuits violated a 1951 peace treaty that expressly waived any rights to reparations from Japan. 

“There is no question about the extent of which they suffered. ... This case is not about the extent of sympathy or gratitude owed them,” Hallward-Driemeier said. ”...This case can be resolved by looking at the treaty and the treaty alone.” 

The former POWs, however, contend the treaty did not cover their slave labor, which allegedly occurred at the hands of Japanese companies. 

Although a federal judge dismissed similar lawsuits, a state court cleared the way for the POWs to sue. The government appealed the ruling. 

Attorney Ronald W. Kleinman, who represented the POWs, argued clauses in the treaty, which was signed by more than three dozen countries, allows for reparations to be paid. 

But Hallward-Driemeier told the judges that POWs were allowed to collect damages from a reparations fund established after the treaty was signed. 

Judge Kathleen E. O’Leary asked how prisoners of war were notified then of the possibility of collecting reparations. 

“They come home in 1946 and in 1951 they have right to the claims. ... Were they notified they had this right?” O’Leary said. 

Hallward-Driemeier said he was unaware of the efforts made by the government. 

Seven POWs watched the proceedings. Outside the courtroom, 87-year-old Carlos Montoya call the government’s argument “terrible,” saying he had never heard from anyone in the government or the military of receiving reparations from Japan after he returned. 

“We came back in 1945 and here it is 2002, and I’ve never heard that. Not once,” said Montoya, who was among those who survived fighting on Bataan and the notorious death march on the Philippine island. 

Montoya, of San Diego, said he was later sent to work in mines and factories. 

Joseph Della Malva, 84, of Seal Beach, was taken prisoner in May 1942 when soldiers on the island of Corregidor surrendered. 

“This really isn’t about money. It’s about holding them accountable,” he said. “We paid a penalty greater than anybody understands ... and then our own government tells us we don’t deserve that. Can you believe it?” 

Congressional support for the veterans has been strong. Currently, three bills — one House and two Senate bills — support the efforts of World War II POWs. 

Of the 36,000 American servicemen captured by Japan during the war, only about 5,300 are still living.