On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, prompting American involvement in World War II. To differentiate itself from the rest of the world, the United States claimed to be racially egalitarian. However, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, allowing the military to “exclude any or all persons from militarily sensitive areas” and to “house them in internment camps.” The United States military then required Japanese-Americans to move into internment camps, especially those living on the West Coast of the country, claiming to protect national security. One hundred thousand Japanese-Americans were forced to move into these camps from 1942 to 1946.
Fred Korematsu, a Japanese-American man, living in San Leandro, California, did not want to leave his girlfriend, and chose to ignore the order, and was arrested. Meanwhile, German and Italian Americans were only sent to these camps after being assessed, and these communities were not subjected to widespread internment like the Japanese-Americans. Korematsu and his lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union appealed his conviction and argued that the order violated his Fifth Amendment rights to proper criminal procedure. The Court was asked if the Executive Order was an abuse of power and obstruction of Japanese-Americans’ justice.
In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled that Executive Order 9066 was valid and within the rule of law. Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority opinion and argued that there was no racial prejudice in the order or its implementation. He argued that the order was strategically imperative given national security risks, noting the West Coast’s proximity to Japan. Justice Black pointed out that while racial classifications are otherwise suspect, in the case of military necessity during a national emergency, they are not. The decision relied in part on Hirabayashi v. United States (1943), which came to a similar conclusion. The decision also noted that since Congress has, in part, endorsed the measure, it should be respected. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote a concurrence arguing that concerns about “espionage and sabotage” gave reason for President Roosevelt to enact the Executive Order.
Justice Frank Murphy wrote a dissenting opinion noting that the Court’s decision was a “legalization of racism.” Justice Murphy was interestingly positioned as a devout Catholic, a religious group that has endured oppression throughout history. Justice Robert Jackson also wrote a dissent. In it, he argued similarly to Justice Murphy that the case “legitimized racism.” He also argued that the decision violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. He referred to the internment camps as “concentration camps” and said the Executive Order was “outside the scope of presidential authority.”
Justice Black, the writer of the majority opinion, went on to later criticize arguments of racial superiority and racial classifications. No Japanese-Americans were ever found guilty of helping the Japanese government, and many actually helped the United States during World War II. In 1982, a congressional commission found that the internment policy was a “grave injustice,” and in 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law reparations equal to $20,000 for every surviving Japanese-American that was housed in an internment camp. However, many have criticized the government for not doing enough for these Americans. Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia noted that Korematsu was one of the worst decisions the United States Supreme Court has ever made. Korematsu’s conviction was vacated in 1984, though he suffered in the interim. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1998 by President Bill Clinton.
While the decision has never been unequivocally overturned, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in 2018 that the decision was a mistake. In 2017, President Donald Trump put in place a ban on travel from certain muslim majority countries, which was thought of as a way to combat terrorism in the United States. President Trump cited Roosevelt’s Executive Order but argued he was not going as far. In 2018, a conservative majority in the Supreme Court upheld the President’s travel ban. Nonetheless, Justice Roberts wrote in the decision that Korematsu “has been overruled in the court of history, and… has no place in law under the Constitution.”