"Living the cause of liberty and rightsDefenders of the Constitution, Arthur and Virginia Barnett are real American heroes."
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:53 PM
"Arthur and Virginia Barnett's Fourth of July was bracketed by her 88th birthday and the couple's 65th anniversary. The proximity of private and public celebration seems fitting, for the principles that were the moral foundation of the new country have formed the keystone of the Barnetts' merged lives. Attorney Arthur Barnett may be best remembered for defending Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese American who resisted internment during World War II. Sustained by Virginia's support and their mutual Quaker beliefs, Arthur withstood pressure from all sides to abandon Hirabayashi's case. He is modest about his own role.You do what you do, Arthur said. There's no heroism, no courage.The couple met in the 1930s, when both were students at the University of Washington. They got there by very different routes. Virginia was born in 1913, to an established, comfortable family whose forebears had migrated to Seattle from North Carolina in the 1880s. Arthur's father left a hardscrabble life in Scotland for the American West. Plans to send for his family were delayed for seven years by World War I. Virginia says it is characteristic of Arthur to view a hard childhood with good humor. You have three boys sleeping in a kind of extended bunk bed, she said, and all he says is 'Wasn't that an interesting way to spend your childhood?' Arthur enrolled in the university, the first of his family to attend college. He paid tuition by working as a swim instructor at the YMCA and trained lifeguards for the Red Cross. They met at the university's Presbyterian Student Club. Virginia was an art major, an interest she has maintained life-long. A photograph from those years shows a young woman of lively intelligence and warm presence.She had other suitors, Arthur recalls. I had quite a lot of trouble getting rid of them. They married in 1936. Virginia and Arthur had an equal partnership from the outset. Often he would discuss his law cases, urging her to write down her cogent observations. Both remember the 1930s fondly. They recall the social fervor of the era, fueled by the deprivations of the Great Depression. The '30s idealism was reflected in the energy of the religious clubs on campus at the time with their emphasis on harnessing spirituality to effect social change.European politics might seem remote, but the Depression did not. Arthur helped establish camps in Seattle for displaced children from Dust Bowl states. The plight of the youngsters made an indelible impression on him.He opened a private law practice in 1935. Arthur and Virginia joined the Quakers; the focus on social action and the diffuse leadership of the Friends appealed to them.Partners in peaceThe Barnetts' commitment to principles and to social justice would prove both durable and sustaining.When friend Gordon Hirabayashi - a UW sociology student - called Barnett for advice on resisting the evacuation and internment imposed on Japanese Americans in early 1942, after Pearl Harbor, Arthur gave his word that he would support his fellow Quaker. Arthur went to an uncle of mine, an attorney in Seattle and consulted him, Virginia said, and my Uncle Tom said, 'Well, of course, if that's what you want to do, then you do it and I believe you're doing the right thing. But, you know it may wipe out your practice.' Serious though the situation was, there were humorous moments, the Barnetts say.Everything was just a muddle at the start of the war, Arthur said.He described how, when Hirabayashi turned himself in to the FBI accompanied by Barnett, the agent - who had not yet received instructions - was forced to send him home, saying, I'm sorry sir, I have no authority to arrest you. When Arthur realized the case would appear before the U.S. Supreme Court, he invited Harold Evans, a prominent Pennsylvania Quaker attorney to, argue the case with him. I was impressed, Arthur said. The justices called him by his first name. He'd argue cases before them all the time. Hirabayashi's cause did not prevail, however; the court, in a 1943 decision, unanimously upheld the government's evacuation policies under the doctrine of military necessity.The justices were embarrassed, but they didn't want to go against Roosevelt. Arthur said. Hirabayashi spent a total nine months in internment, only resuming his studies after the war.Arthur's subsequent legal career reads like a history of the civil rights issues of the 20th century. He defended Fifth Amendment rights during the McCarthy era, and fought for fair housing, employment and civil rights in subsequent decades.In 1986, he worked as part of the legal team that overturned Hirabayashi's conviction, citing fundamental errors in the trial.Now the Barnetts bring their principles and zest for living to their 66th year together. Coffee at the pub, greetings from liveaboards anchored by their Eagle Harbor home and the New York Review of Books are all pleasures to be savored. Past accomplishments are not forgotten, however; the University of Washington may preserve the Barnetts' files and papers for their archives. They are deeply interested, and that's a very important relationship at our stage in life, Virginia said, to have anybody interested in who we are, where we've been, what we've done. "