Landmark Supreme Court Case: Korematsu v. U.S. (1944)
Korematsu v. U.S. (1944) is the 87th landmark Supreme Court case, tenth 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.
Korematsu v. U.S. (1944)
In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the report of the First Roberts Commission, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, authorizing the War Department to create military areas from which any or all Americans might be excluded, and to provide for the necessary transport, lodging, and feeding of persons displaced from such areas. On March 2, 1942, the U.S. Army Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Command, issued Public Proclamation No. 1, demarcating western military areas and the exclusion zones therein, and directing any “Japanese, German, or Italian aliens” and any person of Japanese descent to inform the U.S. Postal Service of any changes of residence. Further military areas and zones were demarcated in Public Proclamation No. 2.
In the meantime, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson mailed to Senator Robert Rice Reynolds and U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn draft legislation authorizing the enforcement of Executive Order 9066. By March 21, Congress had enacted the proposed legislation, which Roosevelt signed into law. On March 24, 1942, Western Defense Command began issuing Civilian Exclusion orders, commanding that “all persons of Japanese ancestry, including aliens and non-aliens” report to designated assembly points. With the issuance of Civilian Restrictive Order No. 1 on May 19, 1942, Japanese Americans were forced to move into relocation camps.
Meanwhile, Fred Korematsu was a 23-year-old Japanese-American man who decided to stay at his residence in San Leandro, California, instead of obeying the order to relocate. However, he knowingly violated Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34 of the U.S. Army, even undergoing plastic surgery in an attempt to conceal his identity. He was arrested and convicted.
Korematsu argued that Executive Order 9066 was unconstitutional and that it violated the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Fifth Amendment was selected over the Fourteenth Amendment due to the lack of federal protections in the Fourteenth Amendment.
No question was raised as to Korematsu’s loyalty to the United States. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit eventually affirmed his conviction, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Korematsu Legal Questions and Answers
Q: Did the President and Congress go beyond their war powers by implementing exclusion and restricting the rights of Americans of Japanese descent?
A: No. The exclusion order applying to Americans of Japanese descent was lawful.
6-3 holding the exclusion order leading to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was constitutional. The Executive Order did not show racial prejudice but rather responded to the strategic imperative of keeping the U.S. and particularly the West Coast (the region nearest Japan) secure from invasion. The Court relied heavily on a 1943 decision, Hirabayashi v. U.S., which addressed similar issues. The validation of the military’s decision by Congress merited even more deference. The “martial necessity arising from the danger of espionage and sabotage” warranted the military’s evacuation order.
The Korematsu opinion was the first instance in which the Supreme Court applied the strict scrutiny standard of review to racial discrimination by the government; it is one of only a handful of cases in which the Court held that the government met that standard. Korematsu’s conviction was voided by a California district court in 1983 on the grounds that Solicitor General Charles H. Fahy had suppressed a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence that held that there was no evidence that Japanese Americans were acting as spies for Japan. The Japanese-Americans who were interned were later granted reparations through the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
Next Politics, Society, Freedom and Equality Case: Shelley v. Kraemer (1948)
Previous Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality Case: Hirabayashi v US (1944)
Next Case: Marsh v. Alabama (1946)
Previous Case: West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)