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Korematsu v. United States

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Significance: Based on the argument of military necessity, the Supreme Court upheld the exclusion of persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast and the requirement that they report to assembly centers, which almost always resulted in assignment to internment camps.


After the United States entered into a war with Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued executive orders authorizing a military program that removed persons of Japanese descent from the West Coast and resettled them in internment centers. Congress enacted a statue that implemented the executive orders. In Hirabayashi v. United States (1943), the Court unanimously upheld the military's curfew that applied almost exclusively to persons of Japanese ethnicity, but the Court refused to even consider the more fundamental issues of exclusion and resettlement. Fred Korematsu was a Japanese American who tried to evade the evacuation program in order to live and work in California. When discovered, he was prosecuted for two crimes: remaining in the restricted area and not reporting to an assembly center for assignment under the program. He was sentenced to five years in prison but was paroled and sent to an internment camp in Utah. Korematsu claimed that his conviction violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. By a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court rejected Korematsu's claim. Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo L. Black accepted the military's argument that the presence of Japanese Americans on the West Coast presented a danger to the national security, and he insisted that their “temporary exclusion” was based on military necessity rather than any racial hostility. Although Black accepted the exclusion program without any solid evidence of sabotage or espionage, he nevertheless wrote that “all legal restrictions that curtail the rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect” and must be given “the most rigid scrutiny.” Ironically, this statement helped establish the Court's use of the strict scrutiny test in cases involving racial restrictions. Because Korematsu was not convicted under the internment portion of the program, Black avoided any consideration of internment, and he examined only the constitutionality of the exclusion and reporting requirements. The three dissenters emphasized the issue of racial discrimination and worried about future applications of the Korematsu precedent. Justice Frank Murphy wrote an especially strong dissent challenging “this legalization of racism” and insisted that investigations of Japanese Americans should have been conducted “on an individual basis” as had been done in cases involving persons of German and Italian ancestry. In Ex parte Endo, announced the same day as Korematsu, the Court narrowly ruled that the War Relocation Authority must release any person whose loyalty to the United States had been clearly established. Because of the difficult burden of proof requirements in the Endo decision, this did not help Korematsu and most other Japanese Americans. In the 1980's lawyer Peter Irons discovered that the military had concealed evidence about Korematsu and others from the courts, and their convictions were overturned.



Further Reading

  • Irons, Peter. Justice at War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Irons, Peter. Justice Delayed. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989.
  • Ng, Wendy L. Japanese American Internment During World War II: A History and Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.