Korematsu v. United States (1944)
Fred Korematsu refused to obey the wartime order to leave his home and report to a relocation camp for Japanese Americans. He was arrested and convicted. After losing in the Court of Appeals, he appealed to the United States Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of the deportation order.
The Supreme Court upheld the order excluding persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast war zone during World War II. Three justices dissented.
Justice Hugo Black delivered the opinion of the Court. He began with the observation that legal restrictions on the rights of a single racial group will always be “suspect” and that “courts must subject them to the most rigid scrutiny.” However, they are not necessarily unconstitutional. The exclusion order imposed hardships “upon a large group of American citizens. …But hardships are part of war….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.”
Justice Owen Roberts wrote in his dissent that this “is the case of convicting a citizen as a punishment for not submitting to imprisonment in a concentration camp, based on his ancestry, and solely because of his ancestry, without evidence or inquiry concerning his loyalty and good disposition towards the United States.” Justice Robert Jackson noted that comparable burdens were not imposed upon descendents of the other nationalities (German, Italian) with whom the United States was also at war.
After the war, Fred Korematsu continued his efforts to clear his name. The ruling in Korematsu troubled jurists and civil libertarians because it suggested that basic civil rights could give way to prejudice and hysteria. Congress enacted the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act of 1948 to provide some monetary compensation to citizens who had lost their homes or businesses during the internment. Ultimately, in 1983, Korematsu succeeded in persuading a federal judge in San Francisco to set aside his conviction for violating the wartime order.
Congress reassessed the internment in the early 1980s, and in 1982 and 1983 issued a report called Personal Justice Denied which determined that military considerations had not required the removal of Japanese Americans and concluded that the Korematsu decision had been “overruled in the court of history.” In 1988, Congress issued a formal apology for the suffering and loss of property the internment order had caused, and in 1989 authorized reparations of $20,000 to each of the approximately 60,000 survivors of the internment camps. Many of those who were imprisoned had been farmers in California who were pressured to sell, at rock-bottom prices, land that is now worth millions of dollars. In 1998, President Clinton presented Fred Korematsu with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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