Korematsu v. United States (1944)

The Facts

Three months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Congress formally declared war on Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order giving certain military commanders broad discretion to exclude people from areas of military significance. The commanding general of the Western Defense Command, John L. DeWitt, ordered the forcible removal of all Japanese-Americans from “military areas” within selected Western states. More than 120,000 Japanese-Americans were first subjected to curfew and exclusions from their homes and then relocated to internment camps. Fred Korematsu, one of the internees, challenged the constitutionality of his treatment under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld DeWitt’s exclusion order. Citing a previous case in which the Court upheld the conviction of another Japanese-American for violating General DeWitt’s curfew order, Justice Black determined that “exclusion from a threatened area, no less than a curfew, has a definite and close relationship to the prevention of espionage and sabotage.” In support of this “definite and close relationship,” Justice Black cited General DeWitt’s Final Report, which sought to connect Japanese espionage activity to the sinking of U.S. ships by Japanese submarines, as well as “investigations made subsequent to the exclusion” (not in evidence), which supposedly confirmed that Japanese-Americans were disloyal.

As Justice Murphy observed in his dissent, the reasons for the forced evacuation were “largely an accumulation of much of the misinformation, half-truths and insinuations that for years have been directed against Japanese Americans by people with racial and economic prejudices.” Subsequent research has revealed that the government intentionally misled the Court by relying upon evidence that it knew to be unreliable.

The Consequences

More than 120,000 innocent Americans were sent to concentration camps. Fred Korematsu did not receive legal vindication until 1983, when his criminal conviction was thrown out on the basis of flawed evidence. As Justice Jackson warned in his dissent, the opinion remains a “loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.”