Context:

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese military attacked the base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The WWII sneak attack caused mass anxiety throughout Americans that the nation was literally under attack. In response, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a statement calling for an American defense and issued Executive Order 9066, which allowed for the War Department to declare areas “war zones” and place Japanese-Americans, German-Americans, and Italian-Americans in Internment Camps on February 19, 1942. The camps were justified as a matter of national security. Fred Korematsu, an American citizen, decided to stay in his residence instead of following the order to turn himself in to a camp. Korematsu even underwent plastic surgery to remain in his home without being noticed. Eventually, he was arrested and convicted of violating the order put out by the Army. The Supreme Court agreed to hear Korematsu’s case and ruled that the Executive Order was not a breach of the president’s powers. Justice Black wrote for the majority, saying that the order was not racially motivated. He argued that although internment camps do not align with the American system, they are being used as a method of keeping the United States safe, especially on its western border, which was closest to Japan. In 1941, a similar case was heard by the Supreme Court, Hirabayashi v. U.S.. In Hirabayashi, a student at the University of Washington ignored a relocation order, like Korematsu and a curfew. The court focused just on the curfew, and decided that the executive order was constitutional. In deciding Korematsu, the Justices with the majority used the precedent set in Hirabayashi to defend their position. Four Justices dissented in Korematsu, expressing their concerns for the constitutionality of the law and its motivations. Justice Jackson’s dissent is particularly important as it focuses on the fact that Korematsu was born in the United States, is not known to be unloyal, and is not a known threat to national security--he is simply a man living a normal life. On the same day that the decision for Korematsu was handed down, Ex parte Endo was also decided. Ex parte Endo made it so the U.S. could not detain a loyal U.S. Citizen.

Korematsu v. United States

323 U.S. 214 (1944)

(The Japanese Internment Case)


Facts:

The petitioner, an American citizen of Japanese descent, was convicted in a federal district court for remaining in San Leandro, California, a "Military Area," contrary to Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34 of the Commanding General of the Western Command, U.S. Army, which directed that after May 9, 1942, all persons of Japanese ancestry should be excluded from that area. No question was raised as to petitioner's loyalty to the United States. 

Prosecution of the petitioner was begun by information charging violation of an Act of Congress, of March 21, 1942, 56 Stat. 173, which provides that

". . . whoever shall enter, remain in, leave, or commit any act in any military area or military zone prescribed, under the authority of an Executive order of the President, by the Secretary of War, or by any military commander designated by the Secretary of War, contrary to the restrictions applicable to any such area or zone or contrary to the order of the Secretary of War or any such military commander, shall, if it appears that he knew or should have known of the existence and extent of the restrictions or order and that his act was in violation thereof, be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be liable to a fine of not to exceed $5,000 or to imprisonment for not more than one year, or both, for each offense."

Exclusion Order No. 34, which the petitioner knowingly and admittedly violated, was one of a number of military orders and proclamations, all of which were substantially based upon Executive Order No. 9066, issued after we were at war with Japan, declared that "the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities. . .."

One of the series of orders and proclamations, a curfew order, which like the exclusion order here was promulgated pursuant to Executive Order 9066, subjected all persons of Japanese ancestry in prescribed West Coast military areas to remain in their residences from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. As is the case with the exclusion order here, that prior curfew order was designed as a "protection against espionage and against sabotage." In Hirabayashi v. United States, we sustained a conviction obtained for violation of the curfew order. The Hirabayashi conviction and this one thus rest on the same 1942 Congressional Act and the same basic executive and military orders, all of which orders were aimed at the twin dangers of espionage and sabotage.

The 1942 Act was attacked in the Hirabayashi case as an unconstitutional delegation of power; it was contended that the curfew order and other orders on which it rested were beyond the war powers of the Congress, the military authorities and of the President, as Commander in Chief of the Army; and finally, that to apply the curfew order against none but citizens of Japanese ancestry amounted to a constitutionally prohibited discrimination solely on account of race. To these questions, we gave the serious consideration which their importance justified. We upheld the curfew order as an exercise of the power of the government to take steps necessary to prevent espionage and sabotage in an area threatened by Japanese attack.

Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944)

Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944)

Issue:

Whether the exclusion order was constitutional. (implied)

Reasoning:

All legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect. That is not to say that all such restrictions are unconstitutional. It is to say that courts must subject them to the most rigid scrutiny. Pressing public necessity may sometimes justify the existence of such restrictions; racial antagonism never can.

We are unable to conclude that it was beyond the war power of Congress and the Executive to exclude those of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast war area at the time they did. True, exclusion from the area in which one's home is located is a far greater deprivation than constant confinement to the home from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. Nothing short of apprehension by the proper military authorities of the gravest imminent danger to the public safety can constitutionally justify either. But exclusion from a threatened area, no less than curfew, has a definite and close relationship to the prevention of espionage and sabotage. The military authorities, charged with the primary responsibility of defending our shores, concluded that curfew provided inadequate protection and ordered exclusion. They did so, as pointed out in our Hirabayashi opinion, in accordance with Congressional authority to the military to say who should, and who should not, remain in the threatened areas.

Here, as in the Hirabayashi case, ". . . we cannot reject as unfounded the judgment of the military authorities and of Congress that there were disloyal members of that population, whose number and strength could not be precisely and quickly ascertained. We cannot say that the war-making branches of the Government did not have ground for believing that in a critical hour such persons could not readily be isolated and separately dealt with and constituted a menace to the national defense and safety, which demanded that prompt and adequate measures be taken to guard against it."

Like curfew, exclusion of those of Japanese origin was deemed necessary because of the presence of an unascertained number of disloyal members of the group, most of whom we have no doubt were loyal to this country. It was because we could not reject the finding of the military authorities that it was impossible to bring about an immediate segregation of the disloyal from the loyal that we sustained the validity of the curfew order as applying to the whole group. In the instant case, temporary exclusion of the entire group was rested by the military on the same ground. The judgment that exclusion of the whole group was for the same reason a military imperative answers the contention that the exclusion was in the nature of group punishment based on antagonism to those of Japanese origin. That there were members of the group who retained loyalties to Japan has been confirmed by investigations made subsequent to the exclusion. Approximately five thousand American citizens of Japanese ancestry refused to swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and to renounce allegiance to the Japanese Emperor, and several thousand evacuees requested repatriation to Japan. 

We uphold the exclusion order as of the time it was made and when the petitioner violated it. Citizenship has its responsibilities as well as its privileges, and in time of war, the burden is always heavier. Compulsory exclusion of large groups of citizens from their homes, except under circumstances of direst emergency and peril, is inconsistent with our basic governmental institutions. But when under conditions of modern warfare our shores are threatened by hostile forces, the power to protect must be commensurate with the threatened danger.

These separate requirements were that those of Japanese ancestry (1) depart from the area; (2) report to and temporarily remain in an assembly center; (3) go under military control to a relocation center there to remain for an indeterminate period until released conditionally or unconditionally by the military authorities. Each of these requirements, it will be noted, imposed distinct duties in connection with the separate steps in a complete evacuation program. Had Congress directly incorporated into one Act the language of these separate orders, and provided sanctions for their violations, disobedience of any one would have constituted a separate offense. There is no reason why violations of these orders, insofar as they were promulgated pursuant to Congressional enactment, should not be treated as separate offenses.

Since the petitioner has not been convicted of failing to report or to remain in an assembly or relocation center, we cannot, in this case, determine the validity of those separate provisions of the order. It is sufficient here for us to pass upon the order which petitioner violated. 

After May 3, 1942, the date of Exclusion Order No. 34, Korematsu was under compulsion to leave the area not as he would choose but via an Assembly Center. The Assembly Center was conceived as a part of the machinery for group evacuation. The power to exclude includes the power to do it by force if necessary. And any forcible measure must necessarily entail some degree of detention or restraint whatever method of removal is selected. But whichever view is taken, it results in holding that the order under which petitioner was convicted was valid.

It is said that we are dealing here with the case of imprisonment of a citizen in a concentration camp solely because of his ancestry, without evidence or inquiry concerning his loyalty and good disposition towards the United States. Our task would be simple, our duty clear, were this a case involving the imprisonment of a loyal citizen in a concentration camp because of racial prejudice. Regardless of the true nature of the assembly and relocation centers -- and we deem it unjustifiable to call them concentration camps with all the ugly connotations that term implies -- we are dealing specifically with nothing but an exclusion order. To cast this case into outlines of racial prejudice, without reference to the real military dangers which were presented, merely confuses the issue. Korematsu was not excluded from the Military Area because of hostility to him or his race. He was excluded because we are at war with the Japanese Empire, because the properly constituted military authorities feared an invasion of our West Coast and felt constrained to take proper security measures, because they decided that the military urgency of the situation demanded that all citizens of Japanese ancestry be segregated from the West Coast temporarily, and finally, because Congress, reposing its confidence in this time of war in our military leaders -- as inevitably it must -- determined that they should have the power to do just this. There was evidence of disloyalty on the part of some, the military authorities considered that the need for action was great, and time was short.

Justice Black decides Korematsu v. United States

Holding:

We cannot -- by availing ourselves of the calm perspective of hindsight -- now say that at that time these actions were unjustified.


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Key Takeaway

The Court found that:

1. The exclusion order was intended to prevent harmful activities during war

2. The areas of exclusions were closely linked to the intent of the order

3. Congress and the military were better positioned to make judgments about whether there were people who were an actual threat

4. The exigent circumstance of war made an otherwise unacceptable order lawful

See also: Hirabayashi v. United States


Court Syllabus:

1. Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34 which, during a state of war with Japan and as a protection against espionage and sabotage, was promulgated by the Commanding General of the Western Defense Command under authority of Executive Order No. 9066 and the Act of March 21, 1942, and which directed the exclusion after May 9, 1942 from a described West Coast military area of all persons of Japanese ancestry, held constitutional as of the time it was made and when the petitioner -- an American citizen of Japanese descent whose home was in the described area -- violated it.

2. The provisions of other orders requiring persons of Japanese ancestry to report to assembly centers and providing for the detention of such persons in assembly and relocation centers were separate, and their validity is not in issue in this proceeding.

3. Even though evacuation and detention in the assembly center were inseparable, the order under which the petitioner was convicted was nevertheless valid.


How the Justices Voted

Majority: Black, joined by Stone, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Rutledge

Concurrence: Frankfurter

Dissent: Roberts

Dissent: Murphy

Dissent: Jackson