The Gist: During World War II and following Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered (Executive Order 9066) 110,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps, arguing it was to protect the nation from its war enemies. The Supreme Court held that Executive Order 9066 was constitutional because the government's need to protect against espionage during a time of war was greater than the individual rights of Japanese Americans.
The Details: Fred Korematsu was a Japanese American who refused to go to a concentration camp as instructed by the United States Army, arguing it violated his constitutional rights. He was arrested and convicted for failing to comply with the order. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld his conviction, holding that the government interest in guarding the nation against its enemies during war and the threat potential disloyal Japanese Americans posed to national security was greater than the rights of Japanese Americans. The court explained its decision had nothing to do with being prejudicial against race or ethnicity, but because the US was at war with the Japanese Empire. The Court also justified the vast number of Japanese Americans interned by reasoning there was no way to identify disloyal citizens.
Korematsu--and the entire act of interning Japanese Americans during World War II--has been condemned by modern legal experts as an unconstitutional mistake and national embarrassment. For one thing, the Supreme Court has consistently made it clear that any government action against the constitutional rights of others must be justified by a compelling government interest narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. This is known as strict scrutiny. Though protecting national security in a time of war is clearly a compelling government interest, interning the entire Japanese American population without any screening process or evidence that that population has done anything disloyal is not nearly narrowly tailored enough to meet that interest. The Supreme Court has held unconstitutional numerous government actions that were far more narrowly tailored than ordering 110,000 people into camps without any evidence they did anything wrong. Korematsu is one of the only decisions in American history to hold that the government met the strict scrutiny standard.
During and following World War II, no Japanese American was ever accused, indicted or convicted of any crime related to national security.
The executive order violated numerous constitutional rights, including the Equal Protection Clause, which guarantees all persons the equal protection of the laws. Though the case has never been overturned by the Supreme Court, other actions have taken place to lessen the potential future impact of Korematsu. In 1971, Congress made it illegal for any citizen to be detained except pursuant to an Act of Congress; this Act was directly in response to the Japanese American internment. In 1983 Mr. Korematsu's conviction was overturned. In 2011, the Department of Justice admitted the internment was error.
Goerge Takei, an American actor, director, writer and activist, recently created a Broadway musical, Allegiance, based on the Japanese American imprisonment during World War II.