Korematsu v. United States (1944)


In a controversial 6-3 decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Fred Korematsu, a U.S. citizen of Japanese descent, was guilty of violating a military ban on Japanese residence in various areas of California, pursuant to the provisions of Executive Order 9066. According to the majority opinion, the nation’s power to defend itself took precedence over individual constitutional rights.
In early 1942, during World War II, Korematsu was hired in a defense-related job after having failed the physical exam for military service. When Japanese internment began in May 1942, under Executive Order 9066, Korematsu moved to another town, changed his name, and had facial surgery in order to present himself as a Mexican American. When his secret was discovered, he was convicted, sentenced to five years in prison, paroled, then sent to a detention camp. Afterward, he appealed to the Supreme Court. Justice Hugo L. Black, writing for the majority, supported the action of the military authorities on the grounds that “we were at war with the Japanese Empire, because the properly constituted military authorities feared an invasion of our West Coast” and because military authorities believed it necessary “that all citizens of Japanese ancestry be segregated from the West Coast temporarily.” While the decision constituted a “hardship,” Black argued, “hardships are a part of war.” Though Black did not agree that Korematsu had been singled out for racial or ethnic discrimination, in an oft-cited section of his opinion he wrote that “all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect” and must be given “the most rigid scrutiny.” In dissent, military expertise in the matter was questioned, and it was suggested that the cases of Japanese-American loyalty should be treated individually, as they were with persons of “German and Italian ancestry.”

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