1940 January 18

Frank Murphy, Civil Libertarian, Joins Supreme Court


After serving as U.S. Attorney General from January 1939 to January 1940, Frank Murphy was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and sworn in on this day. During his term on the Court (1940–1949), he became a consistent defender of civil liberties. He is perhaps most famous for his dissent in Korematsu v. United States, decided on December 18, 1944, in which he declared that the evacuation of the Japanese-Americans into internment camps “falls into the ugly abyss of racism.” (It is believed that this was the first use of the word “racism” in a U.S. Supreme Court opinion.)

As Attorney General, on February 2, 1939, Murphy created the Civil Liberties Unit, the forerunner of today’s Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department.

Murphy’s dissent in Korematsu v. United States (1944): “I dissent, therefore, from this legalization of racism. Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting, but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States. All residents of this nation are kin in some way by blood or culture to a foreign land. Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of the new and distinct civilization of the United States. They must, accordingly, be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment, and as entitled to all the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Read: Sidney E. Fine, Frank Murphy: The Detroit Years (2 vols., 1975)

Read Murphy’s Supreme Court biography: http://supremecourthistory.org/timeline_murphy.html

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