On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor and drew the United States into the Second World War. Domestically, the attack worsened suspicions towards Japanese Americans, who were viewed as potential saboteurs of the Empire of Japan. On the West Coast, journalists, politicians, social groups and the U.S. Government fanned the flames of anti-Japanese hysteria, which swept across an ravenous public that eagerly called for the expulsion of all persons of Japanese descent.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the Secretary of War and designated Military Commanders "to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent . . . from which any or all persons may be excluded, . . ." The President indicated that these steps were needed to protect against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, premises, and utilities.
The exclusion order resulted in the exclusion and internment of all persons of Japanese descent then living on the West Coast. Of the internees, two-thirds of them had been born in the United States and another large portion were first generation U.S. citizens. In all, from 1942 to 1945, the U.S. government uprooted more than 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes, farms, schools, jobs and businesses.
In Korematsu, the petitioner was convicted of violating Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34 of the Commanding General of the Western Command. Under this Order, all persons of Japanese ancestry were to be excluded from San Leandro, California, which was located within a "Military Area."
The Court noted that "all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect." This does not mean that all such restrictions are unconstitutional. Instead, the courts will review such restrictions under the strictest scrutiny.
In this case, the Supreme Court found that these restrictions survived the strictest scrutiny. The Court indicated that the exclusion order bore "a definite and close relationship to the prevention of espionage and sabotage." The Court also exhibited great deference to the military authorities, who had concluded that there were disloyal Japanese Americans who "constituted a menace to national defense and safety, "whose number and strength could not be precisely and quickly ascertained," and "that in a critical hour, such persons could not readily be isolated and separately dealt with, . . ."
Accordingly, the Court stated that Korematsu was properly excluded "because we are at war with the Japanese Empire, because the properly constituted military authorities feared an invasion of our West Coast and felt constrained to take proper security measures, because they decided that the military urgency of the situation demanded that all citizens of Japanese ancestry be segregated from the West Coast temporarily, and finally, because Congress, reposing its confidence in this time of war in our military leaders–as inevitably it must–determined that they should have the power to do just this."
Justice Roberts, Murphy and Jackson dissented, each submitting a separate opinion.
Justice Murphy acknowleged the great deference that must be accorded to military authorities during times of war. "[T]heir judgments ought not to be overruled lightly by those whose training and duties ill-equip them to deal intelligently with matters so vital to the physical security of the nation."
However, the Justice indicated that definite limits must be placed on military discretion. "The judicial test of whether the Government, on a plea of military necessity, can validly deprive an individual of any of his constitutional rights is whether the deprivation is reasonably related to a public danger that is so 'immediate, imminent, and impending' as not to admit of delay and not to permit the intervention of ordinary constitutional processes to alleviate the danger."
Justice Murphy found that the exclusion order lacked a reasonable relationship to a public danger because it was based "upon the assumption that all persons of Japanese ancestry may have a dangerous tendency to commit sabotage and espionage and to aid our Japanese enemy in other ways." Furthermore, the report supporting the exclusion rested on a collection of "misinformation, half-truths and insinuations that for years have been directed against Japanese Americans by people with racial and economic prejudices–the same people who have been among the foremost advocates of the evacuation.
Justice Jackson also called for a reversal of the lower court's judgment. However, he based his decision on different grounds. He stated that he would not review the reasonableness of the military's evacuation and detention program because the "military reasonableness of these orders can only be determined by military superiors."
Instead, Justice Jackson stated, "I should hold that a civil court cannot be made to enforce an order which violates constitutional limitations even if it is a reasonable exercise of military authority." Here, the exclusion order was unconstitutional because it was based not on the petitioner's conduct, but on his ancestry "[I]f any fundamental assumption underlies our system, it is that guilt is personal and not inheritable." "But here is an attempt to make an otherwise innocent act a crime merely because this prisoner is the son of parents as to whom he had no choice, and belongs to a race from which there is no way to resign." Thus, the Justice called for the petitioner's release.
Four decades later in 1988, the United States would officially apologize for its actions and pay reparations to internment camp survivors.