Landmark Supreme Court Case: Hirabayashi v. US (1943)
Hirabayashi v. US (1943) is the 85th landmark Supreme Court case, ninth in the Politics, Society, Freedom and Equality module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Hirabayashi v. US (1943)
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, American public opinion initially stood by the large population of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, or at least did not openly question their loyalty to the United States. Six weeks later, however, public opinion turned against Japanese Americans, as the press and other Americans became nervous about the potential for fifth column activity. Though the administration (including President Roosevelt and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover) dismissed rumors of Japanese American espionage on behalf of the Japanese war effort, pressure mounted upon the administration as the tide of public opinion turned against Japanese Americans.
On February 19, 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing Lieutenant General John DeWitt (as head of the Western Defense Command) to exclude certain persons from “military areas”, regardless of their ancestry or country of citizenship. Over the course of several weeks, LTG DeWitt issued several public proclamations, which first imposed a curfew upon Japanese American citizens and resident “aliens” of Japanese descent. (The Issei, or first-generation immigrants, were prohibited from naturalized citizenship as members of an “unassimilable” race.)
Later orders established the War Relocation Authority which had the power to remove, maintain, and supervise persons who were excluded from the military areas; specifically, confining Japanese Americans to Military Area No. 1, which included Seattle, where Hirabayashi lived. On May 3, 1942, DeWitt issued an order requiring Japanese Americans in the Seattle area to report to assigned assembly points for “evacuation” to isolated inland camps. (At the time, the terms “relocation centers”, “internment camps”, and “concentration camps” were used interchangeably.)
The defendant, Gordon Hirabayashi, was a University of Washington student who was accused of violating the curfew and exclusion order, designated a misdemeanor by Public Law 503, a Congressional statute introduced to enforce Executive Order 9066 and any subsequent military orders. Hirabayashi turned himself in for disobeying the curfew at the FBI’s Seattle office on May 16, 1942, announcing that he also planned to disobey the impending removal order. He was held in King County Jail for five months, until his trial on October 20. The jury deliberated for just ten minutes before returning two guilty verdicts, one for the curfew violation and another for the exclusion order, and Hirabayashi was sentenced to consecutive thirty-day jail terms. (After requesting to serve his time in an outdoor labor camp rather than prison, Judge Lloyd Black handed down two ninety-day sentences, to be served concurrently at the Catalina Federal Honor Camp outside Tucson, Arizona.) Hirabayashi’s lawyers appealed the conviction and, after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco declined to rule on the case, it eventually landed in the Supreme Court.
The Justice Department expected a legal challenge to all of the three substantive elements of Roosevelt’s and DeWitt’s directives to Japanese Americans: curfew, exclusion, and internment. The FDR administration, and particularly the Department of Justice and Francis Biddle sought out test cases it could use to establish favorable precedent and prepare itself for a case that could challenge the entire internment policy. The Supreme Court heard both the Hirabayashi case and Yasui v. United States during the 1942–43 term, and released the opinions as companion cases on June 21, 1943.
Q: Did the President’s executive orders and the power delegated to the military authorities discriminate against Americans and resident aliens of Japanese descent in violation of the Fifth Amendment?
A: No. The President’s orders and the implementation of the curfew were constitutional.
Unanimous holding that the application of curfews against members of a minority group was constitutional when the nation was at war with the country from which that group originated. Taking into account the great importance of military installations and weapons production that occurred on the West Coast and the “solidarity” that individuals of Japanese descent felt with their motherland, restrictions on Japanese actions served an important national interest. The Court ducked the thorny relocation issue and focused solely on the curfew, which the Court viewed as a necessary “protective measure.” Racial discrimination was justified since:
in time of war residents having ethnic affiliations with an invading enemy may be a greater source of danger than those of a different ancestry.
This case has been largely overshadowed by Korematsu v. United States, decided the following term, in which the Court directly addressed the constitutionality of the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. But, though the Korematsu case (challenging the exclusion portion of Executive Order 9066) overshadowed the Hirabayashi case (challenging only the curfew portion of the order), the Court’s opinion in Korematsu cited its Hirabayashi ruling, upholding the restrictions placed on Japanese Americans
In 1986 and 1987, Hirabayashi’s convictions on both charges were overturned by the U.S. District Court in Seattle and the Federal Appeals Court, because evidence arose that the Solicitor General’s office (led by Charles H. Fahy) had cited examples of Japanese American sabotage in its 1943–44 Supreme Court arguments, despite having researched and debunked all the rumored incidents. In 2011, the Acting Solicitor General officially confessed error in that regard. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued the final decision as Hirabayashi v. United States in 1987.
In May 2012, President Obama awarded Gordon Hirabayashi posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
Next Politics, Society, Freedom and Equality Case: Korematsu v. United States (1944)
Previous Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality Case: Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada (1938)
Next Case: West Virginia v. Barnette (1943)
Previous Case: Skinner v. Oklahoma(1942)