Fred Korematsu was a 23-year-old Japanese-American citizen when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing armed forces to remove people of Japanese ancestry to internment camps following the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1942. This caused the relocation of 120,000+ people to 26 detention camps in seven western states, some of which were in particularly remote and harsh conditions.
Korematsu did not comply with the order. He changed his name, altered his appearance, and claimed to be of Hawaiian and Spanish descent. After the FBI arrested him in May of 1942, he was convicted of violating military orders and sent to an internment camp in San Bruno, CA. The ACLU, representing Korematsu, appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled 6-3 that Korematsu’s detention was not based on race, but instead constituted a “military necessity.”
Dissenting, Justice Jackson stated, “Korematsu ... has been convicted of an act not commonly thought a crime … It consists merely of being present in the state whereof he is a citizen, near the place where he was born, and where all his life he has lived…\[H]ere 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.”
The case has reverberations to this day. During the Trump v. Hawaii Muslim travel-ban case in 2018, Justice Sotomayor argued in her dissent that the court was using the “same dangerous logic” from Korematsu to justify a ban on nationals from certain Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Responding to this criticism, Justice Robert said that Korematsu “has no place in law under the Constitution.” However, it can be argued that Trump v. Hawaii is essentially the same doctrine by a different name.Back to top
the imprisonment of a citizen in a concentration camp solely because of ancestry
is unjustifiable ugly racial prejudice,
which was inevitably justified
by the Court, Congress and the President
The Constitution means
MR. JUSTICE MURPHY, dissenting.
This exclusion of "all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien," from the Pacific Coast area on a plea of military necessity in the absence of martial law ought not to be approved. Such exclusion goes over "the very brink of constitutional power" and falls into the ugly abyss of racism.