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On This Day: Supreme Court Upholds Constitutionality of Japanese Internment

Last updated: February 13, 2023

On Dec. 18, 1944, the Supreme Court ruled in Korematsu v. United States that the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans was constitutional, though it ruled in a separate decision that loyal citizens must be released. The decisions came soon after the government decided to end internment.

Court Upholds Korematsu Conviction

Between 1942 and the end of World War II, in the single largest forced relocation in U.S. history, nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans were forced from their homes and transported to internment camps all over the western United States.

The policy was the direct result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Signed in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the order designated all West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry—whether citizens or not—as “enemy aliens.”

Fred Korematsu, a son of Japanese immigrants living in San Francisco, defied the military and police, remaining with his Italian-American girlfriend while his family was transported to an internment camp in Tanforan, Calif. He assumed a new identity and had plastic surgery to alter his appearance, but he was caught on May 30, 1942 and taken to Tanforan.

With the help of an ACLU director, Korematsu filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government, arguing that his constitutional rights had been violated and that he had suffered racial discrimination. He lost lower court cases, receiving a five-year probation for violating the executive order.

The case eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court; a year earlier, the court had upheld the constitutionality of curfews for Japanese-Americans in Yasui v. United States and Hirabayashi v. United States. The cases served as the foundation for the Korematsu case, with the justices ruling 6-3 to uphold his arrest and internment.

Justice Hugo Black, writing the majority opinion, defended internment on the basis of national security: “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 … 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.”

Justices Frank Murphy, Robert Jackson and Owen Roberts dissented. Murphy wrote that the decision was a “legalization of racism,” while Jackson warned of its potential consequences.

“The Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens,” he wrote. “The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.”

Ex Parte Endo and the End of Internment

Full Text of Court Cases

  • Korematsu v. United States
  • Ex Parte Endo
  • Hirabayashi v. United States
  • Yasui v. United States

The court’s decision to uphold internment came just as internment was beginning to end. “Day before, the Army had rescinded its mass evacuation order, told the loyal Japanese and Nisei they could return,” reported Time. “Invasion, the Army explained, is no longer ‘a substantial possibility.’”

The War Relocation Authority, the federal agency that oversaw internment, announced that all camps would be closed by the end of 1945 and that the WRA would cease operations by June 30, 1946.

After making the Korematsu decision, the Supreme Court issued a second decision that made the widespread internment of U.S. citizens impossible. In Ex Parte Endo, the court ruled that Mitsuye Endo, a citizen the WRA conceded was loyal to the U.S., should be given her freedom.

“In reaching that conclusion we do not come to the underlying constitutional issues which have been argued,” wrote Justice William O. Douglas in the opinion. “For we conclude that, whatever power the War Relocation Authority may have to detain other classes of citizens, it has no authority to subject citizens who are concededly loyal to its leave procedure.”

“The court, frankly avoiding a tough constitutional issue in wartime, almost contradicted itself,” remarked Time.

The Overturning of Korematsu’s Conviction

Sources in this Story

  • San Francisco Chronicle: Fred Korematsu—he defied wartime order to internment camp
  • George Mason University: History Matters: Korematsu v. United States: The U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Internment
  • Time: The Nisei Go Back
  • Harry S. Truman Library: The War Relocation Authority and The Incarceration of Japanese-Americans During World War II
  • PBS: Children of the Camps: Internment History
  • Our Documents: Executive Order 9066: Resulting in the Relocation of Japanese
  • AsianWeek: The Resonance of Korematsu v. U.S.

In the 1980s, law professor Peter Irons discovered government documents that showed the Justice Department overstated the threat posed by Japanese-Americans. Irons and a team of pro bono attorneys had Korematsu’s case reopened, and in 1983, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel reversed his conviction.

The case, Patel said, “stands as a caution that in times of distress the shield of military necessity and national security must not be used to protect governmental actions from close scrutiny and accountability.”

In 1988, the U.S. government conceded that the relocation program was based on racial bias. Ten years later, Korematsu was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “Plessy, Brown, Parks … to that distinguished list, today we add the name of Fred Korematsu,” President Bill Clinton said during the award ceremony.

Korematsu died of respiratory failure on March 31, 2005 at the age of 86. “Fred was an ordinary American with extraordinary courage,” said Irons.

Background: Japanese Internment

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese Empire launched a surprise aerial attack on a U.S. Naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The following day, President Roosevelt and Congress declared war on Japan.

Many Americans feared that Japan could launch a similar attack on the West Coast. On Feb. 19, 1942, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the internment of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans under the justification that some may be aiding the Japanese war effort.

Over the next several years, about 120,000 Japanese immigrants and American citizens of Japanese descent were rounded up and interned in military camps. There were 10 internment camps, located in remote areas in eastern California, northern Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas.

“The government made no charges against them, nor could they appeal their incarceration,” according to Our Documents, a Web site of the National Archives. “All lost personal liberties; most lost homes and property as well.”

Living conditions in these camps were awful. Detainees were crowded together in homes behind barbed wire fences, fed poorly and given inadequate medical care. Even President Roosevelt called them “concentration camps,” according to PBS.

The final camp wasn’t closed until 1946, after World War II had ended.

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to World War II links to the most comprehensive and reliable sources on the war.

Resources for Learning About Japanese-Internment

The National Archives features official documents relating to the relocation and internment program, including detention and internment files, public hearings and testimonies, and an index of compensation and reparation case files. It also provides a teacher’s guide.

“Confinement and Ethnicity,” a 1999 report published in the National Parks Service’s Publications in Anthropology, examines life inside the internment camps. It also provides a map detailing all the camps and relocation centers.

The Smithsonian Institution’s “A More Perfect Union” gives an overview of internment, provides a collection of more than 800 artifacts, and includes a teacher’s guide. The Smithsonian also examines internment through four letters written by internees to a San Diego teacher.

The Manzanar (Calif.) National Historic Site, the site of a war relocation center, describes life in the camp, features oral history interview with former internees, and provides lesson plans for elementary and high school teachers.

The Library of Congress has a large collection of internment camp photos taken by famed photographer Ansel Adams.

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