Korematsu v. United States (1944)


Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944) was a U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld Japanese internment camps. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. Executive Order 9066 resulted in the eviction of thousands of Japanese American children, women, and men from restricted areas in the West Coast and held many of them in internment camps in order of preventing the occurrence of war crimes.  Fear and uncertainty manifested among the general American public and the government from the attack. Congress and the Executive acted in response of the public’s concern and targeted individuals of Japanese ancestry as potential war threats.  Living during the wartime tension, Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American, tried to live out of trouble. Korematsu would lie about his ethnicity and background saying he was Mexican American in order to avoid governmental exclusion. Korematsu didn’t escape the Executive Order 9066 when he refused to leave his home in San Leandro, California violating Exclusion Order Number 34.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Korematsu’s conviction resulting in him going to a Japanese internment camp. The majority opinion, delivered by Justice Black, justified their ruling by stating that Congress and the Executive have the right to issue military orders that evicted and placed individuals in internment camps based off their Japanese ancestry due to the fact that potential of espionage existing among Japanese Americans outweighed their constitutional rights. This case ruling has been regarded as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions made by many historians due to the lack of civil rights granted to Korematsu. After Korematsu v. United States, Korematsu’s conviction was reversed.

Timeline 1


After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 by Japanese military, Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 16, 1942. The Executive Order allowed United States Military to transport individuals, implying those of Japanese ancestry,  to live in designated and restricted areas and issued curfews for the latter group of individuals as a result of wartime prevention and protection. The order did not mention a particular group. It was mostly applied to the Japanese American population. The population was largely located on the West Coast. A Nisei Order was issued which meant that all U.S. born sons and daughters of Japanese immigrants of the southern California terminal island, were ordered to evacuate their homes only bringing what they could carry. After the Pearl Harbor attack, great hostility towards individuals of Japanese ancestry increased in fear of said individuals potentially being spies plotting another attack. The United States suffered immensely from the Pearl Harbor attack and many citizens were terrorized with the image of the attack. The United States President and Congress acted in response to the attack and the political attitude of the the nation’s fear of war and terror. A second executive order was issued on March 18, 1942. This executive order created the War Relocation Authority.  This agency was responsible for speeding up the relocation process for Japanese relocation. The evacuees were sent to the Manzanar War relocation center. On May 3, 1942 Fred Korematsu was issued the Exclusion Order Number 34. Korematsu failed to submit to his relocation destination. Consequently,  Korematsu was then arrested on May 30 and taken to Tanforan Relocation Center. He was convicted of violating a military order and received a five year probation sentence.

Procedural History

Korematsu appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. His appeal was denied citing that the case doubted whether or not it had jurisdiction to hear the appeal.

After being denied, Korematsu appealed to the Supreme Court.

On April 5, 1943 oral arguments were held.

On December 8, 1944 the United States supreme court delivered its opinion on the Korematsu case, upholding Korematsu’s conviction

On December 18, 1944 the U.S. supreme court handed down an Ex-Parte Endo, which the justices unanimously ruled that the U.S. government could not continue to detain a citizen who was “concededly loyal” to the United States.



  • Did the Presidential Executive Order 9066 violate Korematsu’s 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause and his 5th Amendment rights to ‘life, liberty, and property.”?
  • Korematsu felt that his rights were being violated. He felt that he was being deprived of his rights live freely without the appropriate legal process.
  • Did Congress go beyond its power by issuing an exclusion that deprived Japanese American of their rights?
  • Did the Presidential Executive Order 9066 violated habeas corpus?
    • Under a writ of habeas corpus, a person should be able to obtain relief from unlawful detention. However, Korematsu was denied this right.


Arguments by Petitioner (or Appellant or Plaintiff or Prosecution)

  • Korematsu believed the orders, proclamations, and congressional law were unconstitutional because these laws deprived Korematsu of his rights, the same rights to other citizens of the United States, without his 5th Amendment right to due process of the law.
  • The laws created by the government deprived Korematsu of equal protection of the law on the basis of racial discrimination. The Fifth Amendment’s due process clause protects individuals on the federal level. The Fourteenth Amendment applies to the state level. As a result, both the Fourteenth and Fifth Amendment are the same. Korematsu believed there was an inconsistency with the application of both amendments because it is not fair that some amendments are applied to certain citizens in certain places when these amendments were created to protect every individual on every level. Korematsu believed the government’s new laws stemmed from racial prejudice not ‘military necessity’ which justified the internments.
  • The government ordered Korematsu to immediate deportation and internment without telling him the cause of his conviction, informing him of any accusations towards him, and without granting him the right to an impartial trial. Thus, Korematsu believed his Six Amendment rights were violated as well.

Arguments by Respondent (or Appellee or Defendant)

  • The Respondent believed that congressional law, proclamations, and executive orders done by the government were constitutional for the nature of the time, and they were valid exercise of the war power. Court precedent in Hirabayashi ruled that the unification of the president and Congress is enough to create “any substantial basis” to incorporate that a “protective measure is necessary to meet the threat of sabotage and espionage.”
  • A substantial basis exists to convey that individuals of Japanese ancestry, despite being born on United States soil, were affiliated and proud of Japan during the Pearl Harbor attack. To distinguish among Japanese Americans who weren’t proud for Japan and those who were was nearly impossible.


In a 6–3 ruling issued on December 18, the court upheld Korematsu’s conviction. The decision of the case written by justice Hugo Black, was related to a case in the previous year Hirabayashi v. United States. Both cases rested on the principle that deference to Congress and the military authorities, due to the recent events of the Pearl Harbor attack, Justice Hugo Black Stated it had to do with racism. In his Argument Korematsu was not excluded because of race or hostility; He was excluded because the United States was at war with japan and there was a fear of invasion along the west coast. Justice Hugo Black Believe proper security measures should be taken; congress should have the authority to do so.

Majority Opinion (Black)

Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by Justices Stone, Reed, Douglas, Rutledge, and Frankfurter. Justice Black begins with stating that “that all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect.” Justice Black noted that the Court’s ruling was controversial because it authorized exclusionary orders towards individuals of Japanese ancestry. Yet, Justice Black justified the Court’s decision by stating “Korematsu was not excluded from the Military Area because of hostility to him or his race. He was excluded because we are at war with the Japanese Empire….because Congress, reposing its confidence in this time of war in our military leaders–as inevitably it must– determined that they should have the power to do just this.” The decision was based off the necessary measures Congress and the Executive must make during war time. The threat of the possibility of the presence of espionage among Japanese ancestry outweighed Japanese Americans constitutional rights because of these war time measures. To this date, many historians critique Korematsu v. United States as one of the worst decisions made by the Supreme Court.  

Concurring Opinion (Frankfurter)

Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote a concurring opinion that there is no evidence present in the Constitution that prohibits Congress from implementing valid military orders. Frankfurter believed that the Constitution can be interpreted in a way that Congress and the Executive have special powers to protect and defend the nation from imminent danger, such as war. Frankfurter states, “To find that the Constitution does not forbid the military measures now complained of does not carry with it approval of that which Congress and the Executive did. That is their business, not ours.” standing behind the military orders created by Congress and the Executive.

Dissenting Opinion (Jackson)

Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote a dissenting opinion where he expressed sentiments to reverse Korematsu’s conviction. Justice Jackson’s dissenting opinion is regarded by many as one of the most influential opinions of a Supreme Court Justice because he believed Korematsu’s conviction was unconstitutional based off racial discrimination. Despite the tension existing during the time of Korematsu’s conviction, after the Pearl Harbor attack, Justice Jackson didn’t believe that Congress nor the Executive had the right to deprive Korematsu from his rights. His dissent is full of examples of how Japanese Americans do not hold a threat to the nation. One of his most famous quotes from his opinion is the following “Korematsu was born on our soil, of parents born in Japan. The Constitution makes him a citizen of the United States by nativity and a citizen of California by residence. No claim is made that he is not loyal to this country. There is no suggestion that apart from the matter involved here he is not law abiding and well disposed. Korematsu, however, has been convicted of an act not commonly a crime.” which clearly states how Korematsu, being an American citizen, was deprived of his rights based off his ancestry.

Dissenting Opinion (Murphy)

Justice Frank Murphy wrote a dissenting opinion remembered most by historians due to the passionate use of the racism. Justice Murphy found no justification for Korematsu’s conviction and immediately believed that his conviction should have been reversed. Justice Murphy believed that the military orders “legalized racism” because Korematsu was at no fault being in the presence of his home, and not being granted his right to an impartial trial. Not only was Justice Murphy in discontent with the lack of constitutional rights granted to Korematsu, but Justice Murphy was upset with the treatment of all Japanese in internment camps. He also highlighted the hypocrisy of the Court’s rule that such military actions outweigh an individual’s rights as these laws are upheld to the strict scrutiny standard. Justice Murphy states, “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.” believing that every American, despite external or internal circumstances, are entitled to their constitutional rights regardless of ancestry or external appearances because most Americans lineage stems from foreign lands.  

Dissenting Opinion (Roberts)

Justice Owen Josephus Roberts wrote a dissenting opinion arguing that Korematsu’s conviction was unconstitutional because his loyalty to the United States wasn’t the reason why he was convicted. The reason Korematsu was convicted was solely due to his race. Also, Korematsu was excluded from his home for doing nothing. Justice Roberts, as the other dissenters believed Korematsu imposed no national threat to the country, and that him posing a threat wasn’t a true indicator to his conviction, which makes the conviction ultimately unconstitutional.

Full Text of Opinions

Significance / Impact

  • The Court’s decision in Korematsu has been loudly criticized by many civil libertarians at the time and generally condemned by historians ever since. Indeed, it is frequently cited for its assertion that “all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect.”
  • After the Supreme Court’s ruling in Korematsu v. United States, he was sentenced to Topaz, Utah to a five year probation along other Japanese Americans. Documents from the U.S. Navy surfaced about forty years later Korematsu’s conviction entailing that the Japanese truly did not possess a threat to the United States. The U.S. Navy purposefully kept these official documents away from the Supreme Court during the duration of the case to their benefit. Lawyers found the latter information and strived to clear Korematsu’s name in the aftermath of Korematsu v. United States.  In 1983, a federal district court in San Francisco overruled Korematsu’s conviction.
  • Congress in 1983 declared that the decision had been “overruled in the court of history,” and the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 contained a formal apology — as well as provisions for monetary reparations — to the Japanese Americans interned during the war. In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Fred Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is known as the nation’s most prestigious civilian award. The United States tried to amend and repair damages done to Japanese Americans during that time by giving each Japanese American who suffered in internment camps during the war $20,000.
  • As of today, the Korematsu v. United States case has been studying and criticized by many intellectuals and individuals for the fact that racial discrimination was justified for a crucial time of war. Justice Black has been criticized for defending his opinion  that the internment of Japanese was not unconstitutional because it served a ‘pressing public necessity’.  Not only has this case been regarded as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions, but it also has served as a model of a ruling that shouldn’t be repeated. The evolution of the interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment has been going in a positive direction after the justification of racial discrimination in Korematsu v. United States.  

Timeline 2

Scholary Commentary and Debate


Constitutional Provisions

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 15

[Congress shall have the power]

“To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.”

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 18

[Congress shall have the power]

“To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”

Article 1, Section 9, Clause 2

“The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.”

Major Statute(s) Under Review

  • Executive Order 9066

Important Precedents

  • Hirabayashi v. United States

Important Subsequent Cases

  • Duncan v. Kahanamoku (1946)
  • Rasul v. Bush (2004)
  • Rumsfeld v. Padilla (2004)

Web Resources

“Constitution.” Korematsu V United States -. Laws, n.d. Web. 02 May 2016.

Konkoly, Toni. “Korematsu v. United States (1944).” PBS. PBS, 2002. Web. 02 May2016<http://www.pbs.org/wnet/supremecourt/personality/landmark_korematsu.html>

“Korematsu v. United States.” Oyez. Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Tech, n.d. Web. 02 May 2016 <https://www.oyez.org/cases/1940-1955/323us214>

“Korematsu v. United States: The U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Internment.” Korematsu v. United States: The U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Internment. History Matters, n.d. Web. 02 May 2016.

“Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court.” Korematsu v. United States. Landmark Cases of the United States Supreme Court, n.d. Web. 02 May 2016 <http://landmarkcases.org/en/landmark/cases/korematsu_v_united_states>

“What Was Decided in Korematsu v. United States?” About.com Education. American History, 09 Apr. 2016. Web. 02 May 2016. <http://americanhistory.about.com/od/supremecourtcases/p/korematsu.htm>


Academic Books, Articles and Law Reviews

Epstein, Lee and Thomas G. Walker. 2016. Constitutional Law for a Changing America: Rights, Liberties, and Justice, 9th Edition. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.

Minami, Dale, Serrano K. Susan. “Korematsu v. United States: A Constant Caution a Time of Crisis.” Asian American Law Journal. Volume 10 Issue 1. Jan. 2003.

Rountree, Clarke. “Instantiating “the law” and its dissents in Korematsu v. United States: A dramatistic analysis of judicial discourse.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 87:1, 1-24.


Spring 2016: Athina D. Aguirre, Juan M. Barboza, Devin J. Mack, Taylor L. Turner