Korematsu v. United States

Following is the case brief for Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944)

Case Summary of Korematsu v. United States:

  • President Roosevelt’s Executive Order, in response to Pearl Harbor, called for the detention of American citizens of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast of the U.S.
  • Mr. Korematsu, an American citizen of Japanese ancestry, violated one particular order pursuant to the Executive Order by staying in his residence rather than evacuating the area and going to a detention center.  He was subsequently convicted for that violation.
  • On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, citing deference to military decisions.
  • The Supreme Court, on certiorari, affirmed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  It held that forcible detention of Japanese-Americans was constitutional in times of war, giving deference to decisions of the Executive Branch.

Korematsu v. United States Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

In 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor during the Second World War.  In response, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an Executive Order allowing for the detention of Americans of Japanese descent as a national security measure necessary to protect against sabotage or espionage by Japanese-Americans.

In implementing the Executive Order, the Army Commander in the western states of the U.S. issued several orders.  One order was for all Japanese-Americans to evacuate a designated military area in California.  Another order was for Japanese-Americans to report to designated “relocation centers.”

Mr. Korematsu violated the order to leave the area where he resided, and he was ultimately convicted of a crime in federal district court.  Korematsu appealed that conviction, claiming that the Executive Order violated his right to liberty without due process.

Procedural History:

  • Once convicted in federal district court, Korematsu appealed.
  • The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, giving deference to the executive branch in times of war.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Can the Executive Branch, during times of war, order that certain people leave their homes for reasons of national security, when those targeted people are ancestors of a country with which the U.S. is at war?  Yes.


The judgment of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

In times of war, the Court cannot reject the judgment of military authorities to act in a manner that is meant to protect national security.  Because the military determined that it could not effectively separate loyal from disloyal citizens of Japanese ancestry in the time it had, the Court should defer to the judgment of the military in those circumstances.


  • Military Deference

The case of Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81, an earlier Supreme Court decision, controls this case.  In Hirabayashi, the Court permitted a military mandated curfew, from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., for all citizens of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast.  The curfew order was made pursuant to President Roosevelt’s Executive Order.  In Hirabayashi, the Court reasoned that it must defer to the expertise of the military to do what is necessary for national security, and the curfew order was – in the military’s judgment – necessary to prevent espionage and sabotage in an area threatened by Japanese attack.

Given that the evacuation order that Korematsu violated was implemented for the same reason, the Court must give similar deference.  The military determined that it was not possible to distinguish the loyal from the disloyal, and therefore made the exclusion order.  Hardships are a part of war.  The hardship placed on Japanese-Americans is a burden due to the war.  Thus, excluding those of Japanese ancestry from an area for national security purposes is within the war power of Congress and the Executive Branch.

  • Only the Exclusion Order Need Be Evaluated for Constitutionality

Korematsu, and dissenting members of the Court, argue that the exclusion order must be evaluated in conjunction with the series of military orders that, together, result in detaining all those of Japanese ancestry in “relocation centers.”  The Court rejects that approach.  Korematsu was convicted of only violating the evacuation order.  Therefore, the evacuation order is the only order under consideration.

In sum, Korematsu was not evacuated because of racism towards Japanese-Americans.  Rather, he was evacuated because of real military dangers and limited time within which to deal with them.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Frankfurter):

The validity of action taken under the war power must be viewed in the context of war.  Because something could be seen as lawless during peace time does not mean it is lawless when the country is at war.  Further, saying that the Constitution does not forbid an action taken during wartime does not mean that the Court approves of what Congress or the President did.

Dissenting Opinion (Roberts):

This case is about convicting a citizen for not submitting to a concentration camp based solely on his ancestry, without evidence that the citizen was disloyal to the U.S. in any way.  The violation of the Constitution here is clear.  The Court’s attempt to decide the case on a narrow ground of the violation of one order ignores the reality that the one order was part of an overall plan to detain, by force, citizens of Japanese ancestry.

Dissenting Opinion (Murphy):

The exclusion of all Japanese-Americans from the Pacific Coast in the absence of martial law goes beyond constitutional power and is simply racist.  Deference to military judgment is important, yet military action must be reasonable in light of the threat.  Detaining all Japanese-Americans in a certain region under the assumption that some small percentage “may” be disloyal is entirely unreasonable.  Indeed, the military had ample time to root out any possible disloyal citizens without detaining an entire race of people.

There is no question that the military action was borne of racism, not military necessity.  There is irony in the fact that the U.S. is fighting to end dictators who put people in concentration camps, yet the U.S. is doing the same thing.  Such racism has no place under the United States Constitution.

Dissenting Opinion (Jackson):

Making it a crime to simply be of a certain race is unconstitutional.  Further, German-American and Italian-American citizens were not treated in the same fashion, only Japanese-Americans.  Approving the military orders in this case will send a message that such military conduct is permissible in the future.  The Court does not need to make a military judgment as to whether the order was a military necessity, but it should not allow it under the Constitution.

Significance and Subsequent Overruling:

Korematsu v. United States stands as one of the lowest points in Supreme Court history.  It is known as the shameful mistake when the Court upheld the forcible detention of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II.  In 2018, in the case of Trump v, Hawaii, the Supreme Court expressly overruled Korematsu v. United States.  Strangely, however, the Court upheld a travel ban essentially based on ancestry in Trump v. Hawaii.  Some believe that the Court, by doing so, traded one shameful mistake for another.

Student Resources:

Full Text – Supreme Court Opinion

NY Times Article on Overturning of Korematsu