Hirabayashi v. United States

Following is the case brief for Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81 (1943)

Case Summary of Hirabayashi v. United States:

  • Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt ordered that curfews and relocation be ordered for Japanese-Americans on the West Coast.
  • The orders, which were quickly enacted into law, were meant to protect the country from sabotage and espionage by citizens of Japanese ancestry, who were thought might be willing to help Japan’s war effort.
  • Appellant Hirabayashi, an American citizen of Japanese descent, was convicted of violating the curfew and a relocation order.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed Hirabayashi’s conviction.  It held that Congress and the Executive can impose a racially discriminatory curfew and relocation order without violating the Constitution because it was a necessary emergency war measure.

Hirabayashi v. United States Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Roosevelt sought to prevent incidents of disloyalty and espionage from people of Japanese descent living in the United States.  Accordingly, he issued two executive orders, which were enacted into law.  One order gave the Secretary of War the authority to designate certain parts of the country “military areas” and the authority to exclude people from those areas.  The second order created the War Relocation Authority, whereby the military had the power to remove, maintain, and supervise persons excluded from the military areas.

Appellant Hirabayashi, a senior at the University of Washington, was of Japanese ancestry.  He was indicted for violating the curfew and a relocation order.  He challenged the indictment, stating that he was an American citizen, had no allegiance to the Empire of Japan, and that the President’s orders were an unconstitutional delegation of Congressional power.  He was convicted and sentenced to three months in prison.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court denied Hirabayashi’s challenges to the indictment.
  • On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals certified questions to the Supreme Court for instructions.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court, however, certified the entire record as if it had been brought on appeal.

Issue and Holding:

Do Congress and the President have the constitutional authority to impose the curfew on citizens of Japanese ancestry?  Yes.

Judgment:

The District Court’s verdict is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The Congress and the President had the constitutional authority to establish a curfew for Japanese-Americans because it was a necessary emergency war measure against the threat of sabotage and espionage.

Reasoning:

Given all of the facts and circumstances, there was a substantial basis for the curfew.  It was imposed in order to meet the threat of sabotage and espionage as an emergency war measure.  The curfew did not unconstitutionally discriminate against Japanese-Americans because it did not deny due process.  Rather, it was within Congress’ war powers.  Racial distinctions are usually irrelevant, but in this case they are relevant for national security.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Douglas): 

The threat of Japanese invasion was real after Pearl Harbor.  We must credit the military’s fear of espionage as one in good faith.  Where the peril is great and time is short, temporary discriminatory treatment of Japanese-Americans may be the only practical answer.

Concurring Opinion (Murphy):

We should trust that the military is acting in good faith.  Congress and the Executive can employ measures to protect the country.  However, a state of war does not mean that the Bill of Rights are suspended.  Our treatment of Japanese-Americans “bears a melancholy resemblance” the treatment of the Jews in Germany.  When the danger is past, the restrictions on Japanese-Americans should be promptly removed.

Concurring Opinion (Rutledge):

The suggestion that the courts have no power to review any action of a military officer is wrong.

Significance:

Hirabayashi v. United States led up to the now-infamous Korematsu decision.  In this case, the Court only dealt with the Appellant’s curfew conviction, and it side-stepped the question of relocation.  The Court did so likely because it knew how unsavory the action was given Germany’s treatment of the Jews during WWII.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

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