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Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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Did the Court Err in Korematsu?

Most internees suffered significant financial and property losses. Upon evacuation, the Japanese American internees were told that they could bring only as many articles of clothing, toiletries, and other personal effects as they could carry.

To compensate these losses, the US Congress, on July 2, 1948 passed the "American Japanese Claims Act," which stated that all claims for war losses not presented within 18 months "shall be forever barred." Approximately $147 million in claims were submitted; 26,568 settlements to family groups totaling more than $38 million were disbursed.

Beginning in the 1960s, a younger generation of Japanese Americans who felt energized by the Civil Rights movement began what is known as the "Redress Movement" — an effort to obtain an official apology and reparations (compensation) from the federal government for interning their parents and grandparents during the war. The movement's first success was in 1976, when President Gerald Ford proclaimed that the evacuation was "wrong."

In 1980, President Carter set up a congressional commission to investigate Japanese internment during World War II. Specifically, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians was directed to review the facts and circumstances surrounding Executive Order 9066 and the impact of the Order on American citizens and permanent resident aliens. In addition, the Commission was to recommend appropriate remedies for the government’s actions at the time.

The Commission held 20 days of hearings in 1981, listening to testimony from more than 750 witnesses including evacuees, government officials, historians and other professionals. The Commission also reviewed the records of government action, contemporary writings and historical analyses.

On February 24, 1983, the commission issued a report entitled Personal Justice Denied, condemning the internment as unjust and motivated by racism rather than real military necessity. The Commission concluded in its report that “the decision in Korematsu lies overruled in the court of history.” Later in the report, the Commission stated that “Korematsu has not been [technically] overruled — we have not been so unfortunate that a repetition of the facts has occurred to give the Court that opportunity — but each part of the decision, questions of both factual review and legal principles, has been discredited or abandoned.” The Commission suggested that the Korematsu judgment was an anomaly in Supreme Court decision-making.

As a result of these conclusions, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided redress of $20,000 for each surviving detainee, totaling $1.2 billion dollars. On September 27, 1992 the Amendment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, and an additional $400 million in benefits was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, who also issued another formal apology from the U.S. government.

Other actions by the U.S. government since Korematsu support this view.  In 1988, Congress officially apologized for Japanese internment in the Civil Liberties Act.  Furthermore, President Bill Clinton sent a formal letter of apology to survivors of Japanese internment in 1993 with reparations.

But these actions were taken at a time when the United States did not face a threat on its territory.  Since the events of September 11, 2001, debate over the Korematsu decision has once again ignited as the United States attempts to deal with the threat of terrorism.  In 1998, before this terrorism threat fully surfaced, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote a book titled “All the Laws But One: Civil Liberties in Wartime” where he discussed the balance that past governments have negotiated between security and civil liberties.  In a speech given in 2000, Justice Rehnquist sums up a position supported by many that the Courts may need to give greater leeway to other branches of government in time of war.

Forty years after his conviction, Fred Korematsu once again decided to challenge it.  Korematsu's conviction was overturned by the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, the same court that had originally convicted him.  The case was heard as a coram nobis case.  A writ of coram nobis is a remedy used only in special circumstances to correct errors in a criminal conviction. 

The court ruled that newly uncovered evidence revealed the existence of a manifest injustice which — had it been known at the time — would likely have changed the Supreme Court's decision. The decision rested on a series of documents recovered from the National Archives showing that the government had withheld important and relevant information from the Supreme Court that demonstrated that the Army had altered evidence to make it appear that Japanese Americans posed a greater threat of spying and disloyalty.

It is important to note that the coram nobis decision overturned Korematsu’s conviction based on the faulty evidence, but did not overturn the constitutionality of the Supreme Court’s decision.  Although Korematsu has not been followed as precedent, it remains good law to this day.

Given these materials and what you have learned about the Korematsu case, do you think that the Supreme Court erred in its 1944 decision? In what way, if any, do the events of September 11, 2001, affect your decision? Explain.

 
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