Opinion of the Court, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (June 14, 1943)

Argued Date: March 11, 1943
Decision Date: June 14, 1943

Background: In January of 1942, the West Virginia Board of Education passed a resolution that made a daily flag salute a requirement in all public schools for both teachers and students. Refusal to participate in the flag salute by teachers was grounds for dismissal and readmission was to be denied until compliance was achieved.  For students, the punishment was expulsion from school that would be considered an “unlawful absence” and force the child’s parents or guardians to be liable for prosecution on charges of delinquency.  The Barnette sisters were Jehovah’s Witnesses and their father would not allow them to salute the flag as it violated the religion’s Ten Commandments which laid out that the only thing to be worshipped was God.  Barnette brought suit in the United States District Court seeking an injunction to restrain the enforcement of the resolution.  The suit alleged that the regulation was an unconstitutional denial of religious freedom, freedom of speech, and was invalid under the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Supreme Court: Jackson wrote the majority opinion for the Court, which was split 6-3. Jackson held that making it compulsory to salute the flag and pledge allegiance was a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments and was not able to be justified as a means of achieving patriotism and national unity.  Jackson reasoned that saying the pledge of allegiance was speech as it communicated an expression of set ideas.  By making this speech a requirement it violated the First Amendment values.

Legacy: The case was the definitive final answer in a long line of cases regarding religious liberty under the freedom of speech clause of the First Amendment brought by Jehovah’s Witnesses. It overruled their own earlier decision in Minersville School District v. Gobitis which upheld mandatory flag salute and expressions of patriotism within public schools.  The case has become a part of our nation’s civic pride, that in public schools every child has the right to believe and practice the ideas or faith that they choose.

Dissenting opinion, Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (Dec. 18, 1944)

Decision Date: December 18, 1944

Background: Fred Korematsu was born in Oakland, California in 1919 to Japanese immigrants. In 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 9066, following the attack on Pearl Harbor.  This combined with other congressional statutes gave the military broad power to ban any Japanese American citizen from the coastal areas between Washington and California.  They also authorized the transport of citizens to inland assembly centers.  Fred Korematsu, at 23 years of age, failed to report to an assembly center and instead chose to remain in the San Leandro coastal area.  He was arrested and convicted of violating Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34.

Supreme Court: The Court upheld Korematsu’s conviction in a 6-3 decision. The majority held that the need in wartime to protect against espionage outweighed Korematsu’s individual rights.  Although they noted that this exclusion of citizens from set areas was constitutionally suspect it was justified because of the wartime circumstances.  Jackson was one of the 3 dissenters.  His complex opinion pointed out that the military order was racist; an attempt to hold a person guilty for the crime of being born of Japanese ancestry.  It also contained two other points.  First, that civilian courts in times of war should not review the constitutionality of military actions because a civilian judge in wartime would defer to military judgment and never term what was said to be militarily necessary as unconstitutional.  Further, Jackson believed that even if such racially discriminatory orders were able to be considered reasonable under military terms, the civilian courts could not constitutionally assist the military in enforcing them and should leave it up to the military to act on them alone.

Legacy: Fred Korematsu’s conviction was overturned in November of 1983 when government documents were found that indicated the government failed to provide the Supreme Court with information they had that Japanese American citizens were not in fact a national security threat. His case became a symbol for the civil rights struggle in America and has particularly been highlighted following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the civil liberties infringements that took place against people of Middle Eastern descent.

Concurring opinion, Railway Express Agency, Inc. v. New York, 336 U.S. 106 (Jan. 31, 1949)

Decision Date: December 31, 1949

Background: New York City passed a traffic ordinance that prohibited the display of commercial advertising on vehicles using public streets. An exemption in the ordinance was made for ads that were on vehicles that related to the business interests of the vehicles’ owners.  Express Railway Agency violated this ordinance by selling advertising space on their vehicles to unrelated businesses.  The conviction was challenged by Express Railway claiming that the ordinance violated the equal protection clause because the distinction being made between related and unrelated advertising was not justified by the public safety purpose of the ordinance.

Supreme Court: The Court found that the ordinance had a legitimate purpose by advancing the traditional police purpose of public safety. The exemption was valid because it limited the distractions to motorists as intended.  Further, the equal protection clause did not function in an absolute manner, thus a city could ban some advertisements that distracted motorists without being required to eliminate every distraction.  Jackson wrote a concurrence.  He reasoned that invoking the equal protection clause meant that a valid regulation required a broader impact and only reasonable discriminations that related to the purpose of the regulation were permissible.  Since the purpose of the ordinance was to reduce traffic hazards, the city acted within their constitutional power; and the limit created by the ordinance was not arbitrary as it had an appropriate relation to furthering the intention of the ordinance.

Legacy: The case is an example of the rational basis review. The rational basis review is one that the Court relies on to this day when dealing with non-fundamental rights cases.  The test lays out that in cases where there exists a disparity of treatment the Court will search for a rational relationship between the existing disparity and the legitimate government purpose.  So long as there is a rational relationship to a valid state power then the court will allow the law to stand.

Concurring opinion, Youngstown v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (June 2, 1952)

Decision Date: June 2, 1952

Background: From 1950 until 1953 the United States was involved in the Korean War. In order to keep inflation down President Truman did not impose price controls, instead he created a board who monitored price inflation, workers’ wages and sought to ensure labor disputes were avoided.  The United Steelworkers union threatened a strike in April of 1952, once it became clear that the strike could not be averted President Truman issued an Executive Order on April 8, 1952.  The order directed Secretary of Commerce, Charles Sawyer, to seize operation of the steel mills.  The Secretary did so by nationalizing the steel mills and directing their presidents to operate them according to federal directions.  President Truman justified the seizure as an act stemming from his broad constitutional power as the President of the United States and the Commander in Chief of the armed forces.  The steel companies brought suit against the Secretary in a Federal District Court.

Supreme Court: The Court ruled that the seizure of the mills was not authorized by the Constitution or by any law of the United States. In fact, the congressional considerations evident and expressed in the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 expressly rejected authorization for the government to seize property as a way to prevent work stoppage and settle labor disputes.  Further, the President’s action was not able to be justified using his military power as the Commander in Chief and the power he sought to exercise was that of lawmaking, which is constitutionally vested with Congress alone.  Jackson wrote a concurring opinion.  He wrote that when determining whether the executive has authority there are three general circumstances.  First, when the President acts with the express or implied authorization of Congress then the President’s authority is at its greatest.  Second, in the absence of either a congressional grant or prohibition then the President acts in a zone of twilight.  In this circumstance, Congress and the President may have concurrent authority.  In this zone of twilight, an actual test on authority will be dependent on the events and the contemporary theory of law existing at the time.  The third circumstance is when the President takes measures that go against the expressed will of Congress, his power is at its lowest.  Jackson placed the action of President Truman in the third category making the order to seize the mills invalid.

Legacy: The three prong test set out in Jackson’s concurrence is widely used when considering the limits of presidential power. The case itself is the premier analytical framework in assessing presidential authority, especially in later cases like the Watergate scandal with President Nixon.