Archives in Context: Teachable Topics from the CSU Japanese American Digitization Project

Courts: Activity 3

Read the following quotes from the judges involved in two of Korematsu’s court cases, one in 1944 and the other in 1984, and discuss the external forces that make have influenced them and the reasons for their opinions. Ask students to imagine themselves as a lawyer representing Korematsu and discuss what they would argue to defend him? Refer to the reading assignment (Appendix A) and timeline (Appendix B) to support the discussion. 

Korematsu v. United States
Opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court
Upholding the district court’s conviction for disobeying the exclusion order with 5 judges in favor and 3 dissenting.
Justice Hugo L.  Black delivering the Opinion.
December 18, 1944
(Irons, Justice Delayed, 1989, pp. 82-83)
“It is said that we are dealing here with the case of imprisonment of a citizen in a concentration camp solely because of his ancestry, without evidence or inquiry concerning his loyalty and good disposition towards the United States. Our task would be simple, our duty clear, were this a case involving the imprisonment of a loyal citizen in a concentration camp because of racial prejudice. Regardless of the true nature of the assembly and relocation centers—and we deem it unjustifiable to call them concentration camps with all the ugly connotations that term implies—we are dealing specifically with nothing but an exclusion order. To cast this case into outlines of racial prejudice, without reference to the real military dangers which were presented, merely confuses the issue. Korematsu was not excluded from the Military Area because of hostility to him or his race. He was excluded because we are at war with the Japanese Empire, because the properly constituted military authorities feared an invasion of our West Coast and felt constrained to take proper security measures, because they decided that the military urgency of the situation demanded that all citizens of Japanese ancestry be segregated from the West Coast temporarily, and finally, because Congress, reposing its confidence in this time of war in our military leaders—as inevitably it must—determined that they should have the power to do just this. There was evidence of disloyalty on the part of some, the military authorities considered that the need for action was great, and time was short. We cannot—by availing ourselves of the calm perspective of hindsight—now say that at that time these actions were unjustified.”

Korematsu v. United States
Opinion of the Court, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California
District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel granting the writ of coram nobis and vacating the past conviction. 
April 19, 1984
(Irons, Justice Delayed, 1989, p. 243)

“Korematsu remains on the pages of our legal and political history. As a legal precedent it is now recognized as having very limited application. As historical precedent it stands as a constant caution that in times of war or declared military necessity our institutions must be vigilant in protecting constitutional guarantees. It stands as a caution that in times of distress the shield of military necessity and national security must not be used to protect governmental actions from close scrutiny and accountability. It stands as a caution that in times of international hostility and antagonisms our institutions, legislative, executive and judicial, must be prepared to protect all citizens from the petty fears and prejudices that are so easily aroused.”

Guiding Questions:

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