Korematsu v. United States, 1944
Ruling: 6-3, United States Supreme Court
Fred Korematsu chose to defy the internment order and carry on his life as an American citizen. He underwent minor plastic surgery to alter his eyes in an attempt to look less Japanese. He also changed his name to Clyde Sarah and claimed to be of Spanish and Hawaiian descent. On May 30, 1942, he was arrested on a street corner in San Leandro, California, and taken to San Francisco county jail. While in jail, he was visited by Ernest Besig, the director of the San Francisco office of the American Civil Liberties Union, who asked Korematsu if he was willing to become the test case to challenge the constitutionality of the government’s imprisonment of Japanese Americans. On September 8, 1942, Korematsu was convicted in federal court for violating the military orders issued under Executive Order 9066. He was placed on a five-year probation. For several months, he lived at the Tanforan “Assembly Center” in San Bruno, CA, one of the former horseracing tracks where Japanese Americans were first held before being sent to the more permanent American concentration camps. Korematsu and his family were transferred from Tanforan to Topaz, Utah, where the government had set up one of 10 incarceration camps for Japanese Americans.
Believing the discriminatory conviction went against freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, Korematsu appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In its December 1944 landmark decision, the high court ruled against him in a 6 to 3 decision, declaring that the incarceration was not caused by racism, and was justified by the Army’s claims that Japanese Americans were radio-signaling enemy ships from shore and were prone to disloyalty. The court called the incarceration a “military necessity.” In one of the three stinging dissents, Justice Robert Jackson complained about the lack of any evidence to justify the incarceration, writing: “the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination … The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.”
Following World War II and the release of Japanese Americans from the concentration camps, Korematsu attempted to resume life as an American citizen. He moved to Detroit, Michigan where his youngest brother resided. There, he met his soon-to-be wife, Kathryn, a student at Wayne State University who was originally from South Carolina. At the time, anti-miscegenation laws prohibited interracial marriage in states including California and South Carolina, but mixed-race marriage was legal in Michigan. Fred and Kathryn Korematsu married in Detroit before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1949, where they raised two children, Karen and Ken.
Korematsu maintained his innocence through the years, but his U.S. Supreme Court conviction had a lasting impact on his basic rights, affecting his ability to obtain employment.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed a special commission to instigate a federal review of the facts and circumstances around the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. In June 1983, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) concluded that the decisions to remove those people of Japanese ancestry to U.S. prison camps occurred because of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
During this time, University of California San Diego political science professor Peter Irons, together with researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, stumbled upon secret Justice Department documents while researching government archives. Among the documents were memos written in 1943 and 1944 by Edward Ennis, the U.S. Justice Department attorney responsible for supervising the drafting of the government’s brief. As Ennis began searching for evidence to support the Army’s claim that the incarceration was of military necessity and justified, he found precisely the opposite — that J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, the FCC, the Office of Naval Intelligence and other authoritative intelligence agencies categorically denied that Japanese Americans had committed any wrongdoing. These official reports were never presented to the U.S. Supreme Court, having been intentionally suppressed and, in one case, destroyed by setting the report afire.
It was on this basis — governmental misconduct — that a legal team of pro bono (voluntary and free-of-charge) attorneys, most of whom were third-generation Japanese Americans, successfully reopened Korematsu’s case in 1983, resulting in the overturning of his criminal conviction for defying the incarceration. During the litigation, U.S. Justice Department lawyers offered a pardon to Korematsu if he would agree to drop his lawsuit. In rejecting the offer, Kathryn Korematsu remarked, “Fred was not interested in a pardon from the government; instead, he always felt that it was the government who should seek a pardon from him and from Japanese Americans for the wrong that was committed.”
On November 10, 1983, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of the U.S. District Court of Northern California in San Franciscoformally overturned Korematsu’s conviction. It was a pivotal moment in U.S. civil rights history. Mr. Korematsu stood in front of Judge Patel and stated, “According to the Supreme Court decision regarding my case, being an American citizen was not enough. They say you have to look like one, otherwise they say you can’t tell a difference between a loyal and a disloyal American. I thought that this decision was wrong and I still feel that way. As long as my record stands in federal court, any American citizen can be held in prison or concentration camps without a trial or a hearing. That is if they look like the enemy of our country. Therefore, I would like to see the government admit that they were wrong and do something about it so this will never happen again to any American citizen of any race, creed or color. ” Although Judge Patel’s ruling cleared Korematsu’s conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1944 ruling still stands. It would require a similar test case, involving a mass banishment of a single ethnic group, to challenge the original Supreme Court decision.
Read Judge Patel’s full decision granting Korematsu’s petition for writ of coram nobis.584 F.Supp. 1406 (N.D. Cal. 1984)
Click here for biographies of Korematsu’s 1944 and 1983 legal team members.