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Korematsu v. United States

Significance

Korematsu is the only case in Supreme Court history in which the Court, using a strict test for possible racial discrimination, upheld a restriction on civil liberties. The case has since been severely criticized for sanctioning racism.

On 7 December 1941, the Japanese Empire brought the United States into the Second World War by attacking the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing 2,043 Americans and destroying both aircraft and warships. The next day, Congress declared war on Japan, which in effect brought the United States into conflict with the other members of the tripartite alliance, Germany and Italy.

On 27 March 1942, pursuant to an act of Congress, the U.S. military issued an order prohibiting persons of Japanese descent from leaving the West Coast region. On 3 May 1942, this order was modified by another, directing that such persons be excluded from the area. The effect of these orders was the forced internment of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. They were first obliged to report to assembly centers, from which they were shipped to inland government camps.

Toyosaburo Korematsu, who went by the name Fred, was an American-born descendant of Japanese immigrants who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. He was rejected for military service for health reasons, but at the time the internment began, he had a good job in the defense industry and a non-Japanese girlfriend. Instead of obeying the military orders, he moved inland from the Bay area, underwent some minor facial surgery, changed his name, and attempted to pass as Mexican American. Eventually, he was arrested, convicted, paroled, and sent to a relocation camp in Utah. After his efforts to challenge his conviction in the lower federal courts proved fruitless, he took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justice Black's opinion, which was joined by five other justices, is often cited for its proposition that "all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect . . . Courts must subject them to the most rigid scrutiny." Although the "strict scrutiny" test would become the standard for judging laws based on racial categories, in this case Justice Black did not find that Fred Korematsu had been discriminated against because of his ethnicity. Instead, Black and a majority of his fellow justices found that Korematsu had disobeyed orders that were justified by military necessity. The Court majority did not question the military's claim that the large number of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast threatened national security, and that the only means of reducing this threat was temporarily to exclude the entire group. The orders, which were issued pursuant to an act of Congress, were a valid exercise of constitutional war powers, the Court reasoned. Korematsu had clearly disobeyed these orders.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Korematsu v. United States - Significance, Korematsu Dissenters Question Constitutionality Of Detentions, Japanese American Internment Camps, Further Readings