EastLaw: Korematsu and Japanese Internment

May 25, 2011

Asian American theme monthMay is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.  During the month of May, we’ll be looking at important legal landmarks in U.S. history relating to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

For the first post on Chinese Exclusion, click here.

For the second post on Yick Wo v. Hopkins, click here.

For the third post on U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark, click here.

At the end of our series on Asian American legal milestones throughout history, we’re going to look at one of the most notorious cases in U.S. legal history: Korematsu v. United States.

The case arose because Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu, a Japanese-American citizen, refused to leave a “Military Area,” the city of San Leandro, California, where he resided.

Why did Korematsu have to leave his home?

Because of Japanese Internment practices that occurred in the United States during World War II.

To give a quick summary, Japanese Internment was initiated in 1942 by President Franklin Roosevelt with Executive Order 9066.

The Order allowed the military to designate geographic regions, mostly on the West Coast, as “Military Areas,” and allowed for the removal of individuals from those areas at military discretion.

That Order led to subsequent military actions that found 110,000 Japanese-Americans, 62% of whom were U.S. citizens, stripped of their property, forced from their homes, and relocated to “War Relocation Camps.”

These sweeping actions were justified in the name of national security, claiming that there’s no way to discern whether a Japanese-American is loyal to the U.S. or to Japan.

Coincidentally, this occurred during a time when anti-Asian sentiment was particularly high among the U.S. populace.

Justice Murphy pointed this out in his dissent, citing specifically to one of many newspaper editorials that favored internment on racial grounds.

The majority wasn’t convinced, though.

They held that internment wasn’t instituted because of racial prejudice, but instead deferred to the military’s stated reasons about Japanese loyalty.

Manzanar Internment CampAmazingly, this decision was reached even though the court applied a strict scrutiny level of judicial review, the highest level possible (also the first time the standard was used).

However, in Korematsu’s 1984 coram nobis hearing (a legal mechanism to overturn a criminal conviction based on factual errors), Korematsu brought several sets of documents to the court’s attention.

These documents included government reports and other facts known by government agencies that directly contradicted military claims during the War that all Japanese-Americans posed a threat to national security, and that their loyalty could not be presumed.

Perhaps most egregiously, these reports were willfully withheld from the Court during its hearing of the original case.

Based on this, Korematsu’s coram nobis writ was granted.

However, this didn’t overturn Korematsu’s holding, only the conviction.

In fact, despite various subsequent acknowledgments of the wrongs of Japanese Internment by public officials, Korematsu v. U.S. is still valid law.

This fact begs the question: could internment happen again?

Some would argue it already has with the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

However, the detention at Guantanamo Bay is not comparable to Japanese Internment.

Guantanamo is used to detain exclusively non-citizen “enemy combatants,” while Japanese Internment imprisoned civilian citizens and non-citizens of an entire racial background.

So while a large-scale internment has not occurred since, legally speaking, there is nothing stopping the imprisonment of an entire class of citizens on national security grounds.

Practically speaking, it won’t happen again.

Because of subsequent outcry against Japanese Internment and racism in general, the public tone has dramatically shifted against any similar future actions.

Thanks to the sacrifices and later efforts of Japanese-Americans, Internment will be a one-time lapse in judgment.