Arthur Barnett, defender of rights, dies at 97

Noted civil rights attorney Arthur Barnett died in his sleep Thursday at Island Health and Rehabilitation Center. He was 97.

Barnett, a longtime islander, leaves a rich legacy to family, friends, community and country. Chief among his accomplishments was his historic 1942 defense of Gordon Hirabayashi, the only Japanese person to challenge, through the United States legal system, the government’s World War II removal of West Coast Japanese Americans.

“He was a very important man to our community and to the Japanese American community at large,” said Frank Kitamoto, president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community. “There weren’t too many men at the time who were willing to stand up for the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. He risked his reputation and career to take that stand.

“It’s just sad to know he’s gone.”

Barnett was just starting his legal practice in 1942, when the internment began with Executive Order 9066. He defended the rights of Hirabayashi, a friend and classmate from the University of Washington, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

When Hirabayashi’s conviction was overturned in 1987, Barnett was there to see the wrong righted and official apologies made.

The sense of justice and compassion that led Barnett to take on the federal government had roots in his childhood, said Virginia Barnett, his wife of 67 years.

“I think that long before Gordon Hirabayashi came along, in his boyhood, he was committed to fairness,” she said, “and in the early days of the Depression, when he worked in the transient program helping the homeless, his attitude was one of great compassion.”

Barnett was born in the Pacific Northwest in 1906, to a Scottish immigrant father. He was the first of his family to attend college, and it was while he was a student at University of Washington – earning tuition by teaching swimming – that he met his future wife at the Presbyterian Student Club.

The two formed an enduring bond based in shared dedication to Quaker principles of justice and peace. They also shared a finely honed sense of humor and an appreciation for fine art.

Virginia Barnett had been an art major, and the couple amassed a creditable collection of Northwest works including many by Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, for whom Barnett did legal work.

In later years on Bainbridge, the Barnetts were a familiar sight at the Harbour Public House near their Winslow Home, sharing good words and coffee with their many friends.

Barnett is survived by his wife of 67 years, Virginia, and by his children: Gordon, John, Molly and Frederick. his son, Fred, and his daughter, Molly.

A community memorial service will be held at a later date. Contributions can may be to the American Friends Service Committee in Seattle; Helpline House; and Hospice of Kitsap County.

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