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Korematsu v. United States

Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214, 65 S. Ct. 193, 89 L. Ed. 194 (1944), was a controversial 6–3 decision of the Supreme Court that affirmed the conviction of a Japanese American citizen who violated an exclusion order that barred all persons of Japanese ancestry from designated military areas during WORLD WAR II.

Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu, an American citizen of Japanese descent, was convicted in federal court for remaining in a designated military area in California contrary to a Civilian Exclusion Order issued by an army general that required persons of Japanese ancestry to report to assembly centers as a prelude to mass removal from the West Coast. He unsuccessfully appealed his conviction to the circuit court of appeals and was granted certiorari by the Supreme Court.

The order that Korematsu was convicted of violating was based upon an EXECUTIVE ORDER, which authorized the military commander to establish military zones and impose restrictions on activities or order exclusion from those areas in order to protect against ESPIONAGE and sabotage. Federal law made violation of these orders a crime. The entire West Coast and southern Arizona were designated as military zones. The restriction and exclusion orders applied to all enemy ALIENS and additionally to American citizens of Japanese ancestry. Pursuant to the executive order, another order imposed an 8 P.M. to 6 A.M. curfew on all persons of Japanese ancestry in designated West Coast military areas. This order and a conviction based on it was challenged in Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81, 63 S.Ct. 1375, 87 L.Ed. 1774 (1943), but the Supreme Court upheld the order as " 'protection against espionage and against sabotage'" and sustained the conviction. The Court relied upon that case as support for its refusal to rule that Congress and the president exceeded their war powers in excluding persons of Japanese descent from the West Coast in Korematsu. Although it acknowledged that being prohibited from the area where one's home is located is a more severe hardship than a ten-hour curfew, the Court accepted the claims of the government that such drastic measures were necessary to adequately protect the country.

At the start of the majority opinion, the Court stated that any legal restriction that infringes upon the CIVIL RIGHTS of a particular race is "immediately suspect." However, it continued, not all restrictions are unconstitutional. Such limitations are valid when dictated by public necessity, but they must withstand rigid judicial scrutiny in order to be upheld. The restrictions imposed upon Japanese Americans were deemed by the Court to be necessary for public security during time of war.

Korematsu argued that the rationale of the Court in Hirabayashi was erroneous and that when the order in question was promulgated there was no longer any danger of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast. The Court rejected these arguments. Both the curfew and exclusion orders were necessary, since disloyal Americans of Japanese origin could not be easily segregated until subsequent investigations took place. Although the hardship of exclusion fell upon many loyal people, the Court viewed it as one of the harsh results of modern warfare.

The Court affirmed Korematsu's conviction, which has been cited by constitutional scholars as the foundation of the STRICT SCRUTINY test that is applied to suspect classifications made by the government.

Fred Korematsu receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton on January 15, 1998.

In 1983, upon a challenge by Korematsu who was represented by the AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION and the Japanese American Citizens League, U.S. district court judge Marilyn Hall Patel vacated the forty-year-old conviction. Based upon newly discovered evidence—previously withheld government documents—the judge found that the new evidence demonstrated "that the Government knowingly withheld information from the Courts when they were considering the critical question of military necessity in this case." The judge added that "justices of [the Supreme] Court and legal scholars have commented that the [Korematsu] decision is an anachronism in upholding overt RACIAL DISCRIMINATION as 'compellingly justified,' and that the Korematsu case lies overruled in the court of history."

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