Court Case of Korematsu v. United States

The Court Case That Upheld Japanese-American Internment During WWII

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Korematsu v. United States was a Supreme Court case that was decided on December 18, 1944, at the end of World War II. It involved the legality of Executive Order 9066, which ordered many Japanese-Americans to be placed in internment camps during the war.

Fast Facts: Korematsu v. United States

  • Case Argued: Oct. 11–12, 1944
  • Decision Issued: Dec. 18, 1944
  • Petitioner: Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu
  • Respondent: United States
  • Key Question: Did the president and Congress go beyond their war powers by restricting the rights of Americans of Japanese descent?
  • Majority Decision: Black, Stone, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Rutledge
  • Dissenting: Roberts, Murphy, Jackson
  • Ruling: The Supreme Court ruled that the security of the United States was more important than upholding the rights of a single racial group during a time of military emergency.

Facts of Korematsu v. United States

In 1942, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, allowing the U.S. military to declare parts of the U.S. as military areas and thereby exclude specific groups of people from them. The practical application was that many Japanese-Americans were forced from their homes and placed in internment camps during World War II. Frank Korematsu (1919–2005), a U.S.-born man of Japanese descent, knowingly defied the order to be relocated and was arrested and convicted. His case went to the Supreme Court, where it was decided that exclusion orders based on Executive Order 9066 were in fact Constitutional. Therefore, his conviction was upheld.

The Court's Decision

The decision in the Korematsu v. United States case was complicated and, many might argue, not without contradiction. While the Court acknowledged that citizens were being denied their constitutional rights, it also declared that the Constitution allowed for such restrictions. Justice Hugo Black wrote in the decision that "all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect." He also wrote that "Pressing public necessity may sometimes justify the existence of such restrictions." In essence, the Court majority decided that the security of the general citizenry of the US was more important than upholding the rights of a single racial group, during this time of military emergency.

Dissenters in the Court, including Justice Robert Jackson, argued that Korematsu had committed no crime, and therefore there were no grounds for restricting his civil rights. Robert also warned that the majority decision would have much more lasting and potentially damaging effects than Roosevelt's executive order. The order would likely be lifted after the war, but the Court's decision would establish a precedent for denying rights of citizens if the current powers that be determine such action to be of "urgent need." 

Significance of Korematsu v. United States

The Korematsu decision was significant because it ruled that the United States government had the right to exclude and forcibly move people from designated areas based on their race. The decision was 6-3 that the need to protect the United States from espionage and other wartime acts was more important than Korematsu's individual rights. Even though Korematsu's conviction was eventually overturned in 1983, the ​Korematsu ruling concerning the creation of exclusion orders has never been overturned.​​

Korematsu's Critique of Guantanamo 

In 2004, at the age of 84, Frank Korematsu filed an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, brief in support of Guantanamo detainees who were fighting against being held as enemy combatants by the Bush Administration. He argued in his brief that the case was “reminiscent” of what had happened in the past, where the government too quickly took away individual civil liberties in the name of national security.

Was Korematsu Overturned? Hawaii v. Trump

In 2017, President Donald Trump used Executive Order 13769, putting in place a ban on foreign nationals' entry to the country using a facially neutral policy that predominantly impacts Muslim-majority nations. The court case Hawaii v. Trump reached the Supreme Court in June, 2018. The case was likened to Korematsu by lawyers for the litigants including Neal Katyal and by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, on the basis of a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S. because the policy now masquerades behind a facade of national-security concerns."

In the midst of his decision with regard to Hawaii vs Trump—upholding the travel ban—Chief Justice John Roberts offered a powerful rebuke to Korematsu, "The dissent’s reference to Korematsu... affords this Court the opportunity to make express what is already obvious: Korematsu was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and—to be clear—'has no place in law under the Constitution.'" 

Despite the discussion in both assenting and dissenting arguments over Hawaii vs. Trump, the Korematu decision has not been officially overturned. 

Sources and Further Reading

  • Bomboy, Scott. "Did the Supreme Court just overrule the Korematsu decision?Constitution Daily, June 26, 2018. 
  • Chemerinsky, Erwin. "Korematsu V. United States: A Tragedy Hopefully Never to Be Repeated." Pepperdine Law Review 39 (2011). 
  • Hashimoto, Dean Masaru. "The Legacy of Korematsu V. United States: A Dangerous Narrative Retold." UCLA Asian Pacific American Law Journal 4 (1996): 72–128. 
  • Katyal, Neal Kumar. "Trump V. Hawaii: How the Supreme Court Simultaneously Overturned and Revived Korematsu." Yale Law Journal Forum 128 (2019): 641–56. 
  • Serrano, Susan Kiyomi , and Dale Minami. "Korematsu V. United States: A Constant Caution in a Time of Crisis." Asian Law Journal 10.37 (2003): 37–49. 
  • Yamamoto, Eric K. "In the Shadow of Korematsu: Democratic Liberties and National Security." New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
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Kelly, Martin. "Court Case of Korematsu v. United States." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Kelly, Martin. (2020, August 27). Court Case of Korematsu v. United States. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Court Case of Korematsu v. United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).