Korematsu v. United States

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In Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. This policy constituted discrimination based on nationality and some of the victims sued to stop it. Three justices dissented from this decision, which is considered one of the Court's most embarrassing rulings. In 1948 Congress enacted the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act to compensate for losing homes and businesses. Additional acts further compensated them for the relocation. In 1980, Congress held hearings to review some of the personal hardships, and issued a report in 1983 condemning President Roosevelt's removal order the Supreme Court decision.

In the United States during World War II there were thousands of American residents of Japanese descent, particularly in California. Shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, over 120,000 Japanese residents (non-citizens) and Japanese-Americans, or Nisei, were ordered by the United States military to evacuate the West Coast area and report to Assembly Centers for indefinite internment. An Executive Order and Congressional Act in 1942 sanctioned a series of military proclamations, which were encompassed in a program intended to remove all of the people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. These proclamations effectively ordered a curfew, evacuation, exclusion and internment of any persons born of Japanese ancestry living in the areas of California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and the southern portion of Arizona. The people of Japanese ancestry, mostly residing on the West Coast at the time, were considered a security risk for sabotage and espionage against the United States. They were given opportunities to sell or lease their property. Many of the internment camps were located away from the coasts in unfamiliar territories, such as near Indian reservations. Thousands of German and Italian Americans were also relocated.

Fred Korematsu, a United States-born citizen, was convicted of violating one of the military exclusion orders in California. He physically altered his appearance in order to disguise himself and avoid detention in an internment camp. Fred Korematsu followed neither the exclusion order to leave the area, nor the subsequent and mandatory order to relocate to a designated camp. He was found, arrested, and then detained by the military in an internment camp. Korematsu was charged and prosecuted only for violating the military exclusion order. He was not charged with violating the order to relocate to a camp, though it too was mandatory and had been issued before his arrest. He appealed the conviction, and the Supreme Court reviewed the case in Toyosaburo Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944). The Court upheld his conviction. The Court sided with the Government’s arguments that the exclusion order was of military necessity because the U.S. was at war with Japan, and therefore those of Japanese ancestry were suspects of espionage and sabotage. The Court refused to rule on the question of the relocation camp, reasoning that the conviction stood only on the exclusion order.

Toyosaburo Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944), is considered to be the most important of the Japanese-American cases because it upheld the forced exclusion of loyal citizens. The case was decided by a 6 to 3 majority vote by the Justices to sustain Korematsu’s conviction for exclusion order violation. Justice Hugo Black authored the majority opinion.

Summary of Majority Opinion: Justice Black’s opinion spoke to the argument of racism in consideration of the fact that there had been no evidence of Korematsu’s disloyalty. Black denied that the order was based on racial prejudice. He implied a more complex situation, due to wartime, by stating that the Court’s task would be “simple” and its “duty clear were this a case involving the imprisonment of a loyal citizen in a concentration camp because of racial prejudice.” Black added that, “regardless of the true nature of the assembly and relocation centers...we are dealing specifically with nothing but an exclusion order.” Finally, the majority opinion ended with the issue of military deference. Due to the military’s fear of invasion, “they [the military] decided” that the situation demanded segregation of the citizens of Japanese ancestry, and Congress determined that “they should have the power to do this”. Ironically Black stated that, “Korematsu was not excluded from the Military Area because of hostility to him or his race. He was excluded because we are at war with the Japanese Empire...”. Black ended by asserting that from the “calm perspective of hindsight,” the Court cannot “say that at that time these actions were unjustified”.

To access the entire Supreme Court opinion: [1]

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