Korematsu v. U.S.


American troops supervise the mandatory relocation of Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast to internment camps during World War II. (Hulton Deutsch/Getty Images)

In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Korematsu v. United States, upholding President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1942 Executive Order creating “military areas” where persons of Japanese ancestry were not permitted. This effectively meant that the thousands of Japanese Americans who lived and worked in these areas — many of them American citizens — were now legally barred from their homes and workplaces. Japanese Americans had already been targets of racial discrimination, and were routinely barred from marrying whites, owning land, and working in certain industries.

The government soon ordered the displaced Japanese Americans to report to newly established barbed-wire-enclosed internment camps for detention. A Japanese American man named Fred Korematsu refused to leave his home; when he was arrested and convicted, he appealed, arguing that President Roosevelt’s order violated his constitutional rights. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court declared that protecting the country from potential Japanese spies outweighed the rights of Japanese Americans. Mr. Korematsu’s conviction stood, and as many as 120,000 remained detained in internment camps through 1946.

The Korematsu decision has since been denounced as unjust, and likened to the 1857 Dred Scott decision declaring Black people ineligible for American citizenship. In 1983, Mr. Korematsu won reversal of his conviction, and in 1998, President Clinton awarded him the Medal of Freedom — but the decision rejecting his appeal has never been overruled. “I would like to see the government admit that they were wrong,” Mr. Korematsu said in 1983, “and do something about it so this will never happen again to any American citizen of any race, creed, or color.”