1944 December 18

Civil Liberties Tragedy: Supreme Court Upholds Japanese-American Evacuation


In the case of Korematsu v. United States, decided on this day, the Supreme Court upheld the evacuation of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast during World War II. In this decision and in an earlier case, Hirabayashi v. United States, on June 21, 1943, which upheld a curfew against Japanese-Americans, the Court expressed deference to military authority during wartime. The treatment of the Japanese-Americans in World War II is widely regarded as the greatest violation of civil liberties in American history.

Unlike the first Japanese-American evacuation and internment case, Hirabayashi, which was unanimous, three Justices dissented in Korematsu. Particularly important is Justice Frank Murphy’s dissent (see below), which condemned the racism in the government’s program.

The Korematsu decision was limited to the order to “exclude” the Japanese-Americans from the West Coast, and did not address the detention of the Japanese-Americans. In a separate decision on this day, Ex Parte Endo, the Court ruled that the government could not detain people it conceded were loyal to the United States (see December 18, 1944).

Justice Hugo L. Black’s majority opinion: “Compulsory exclusion of large groups of citizens from their homes, except under circumstances of direst emergency and peril, is inconsistent with our basic governmental institutions. But when, under conditions of modern warfare, our shores are threatened by hostile forces, the power to protect must be commensurate with the threatened danger.”

Justice Frank Murphy’s dissent: “Such exclusion goes over ‘the very brink of constitutional power,’ and falls into the ugly abyss of racism.”

Learn more at the Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education: http://korematsuinstitute.org/institute/aboutfred/

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