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.
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