See P. Irons, Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases (1983, repr. 1993).
On March 27, 1942, General John L. DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Area, prohibited Japanese Americans from leaving the limits of Military Area No. 1, in preparation for their eventual evacuation to detention camps. Korematsu decided to evade evacuation by migrating to Nevada or the Midwestern United States. He underwent plastic surgery on his eyelids in the unsuccessful hope of passing as a caucasian, changed his name to Clyde Sarah, and claimed to be of Spanish and Hawaiian heritage.
When on May 3, 1942, General DeWitt ordered Japanese Americans to report on May 9 to Assembly Centers as prelude to being removed to the camps, Korematsu refused and went into hiding in the Oakland area. He was arrested on a street corner in San Leandro on May 30, 1942, held at a jail in San Francisco, and indicted on June 12, 1942. Released on bail pending trial, he was seized and sent to join the rest of his family at the Tanforan Assembly Center upon instructions of General DeWitt. Shortly after Korematsu's arrest, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union in northern California asked him if he would be willing to use his case to test the legality of the Japanese American interment. Korematsu agreed.
Korematsu was tried and convicted in federal court on September 8, 1942, for a violation of Public Law No. 503, which criminalized the violations of military orders issued under the authority of Executive Order 9066, and was placed on five years' probation. He was taken from the courtroom and returned to the Tanforan Assembly Center, and thereafter he and his family were placed in the Central Utah War Relocation Center situated at Topaz, Utah. As an unskilled laborer, he was eligible to receive only $12 per month ($167 in 2007 dollars) for working eight hours per day at the camp.
He appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals. They granted review on March 27, 1943, but upheld the original verdict on January 7, 1944. He appealed again and brought his case to the United States Supreme Court, which granted review on March 27, 1944. On December 18, 1944, in a 6-3 decision, authored by Justice Black, the Court held that compulsory exclusion, though constitutionally suspect, is justified during circumstances of "emergency and peril". (See Korematsu v. United States for more information.)
However, the Court also decided Ex parte Endo in December 1944, granting Mitsuye Endo her liberty from the camps because the Department of Justice and War Relocation Authority conceded that Endo was a "loyal and law-abiding citizen" and that no authority existed for detaining loyal citizens longer than necessary to separate the loyal from the disloyal. Endo's case did not address the question of whether the initial removal itself was constitutional, as did Korematsu's case.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed a special commission to investigate the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The commission concluded that the decisions to remove those of Japanese ancestry to prison camps occurred because of "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership". In 1988, Congress apologized and granted personal compensation of $20,000 to each surviving prisoner.
In the early 1980s, while researching a book on internment cases, lawyer and University of California, San Diego professor Peter Irons came across evidence that Charles Fahy, the Solicitor General of the United States who argued Korematsu v. United States before the Supreme Court, had deliberately suppressed reports from the FBI and military intelligence which concluded that Japanese-American citizens posed no security risk. Along with a team of lawyers headed by Dale Minami, Irons filed a writ of coram nobis with the federal courts, seeking to overturn Korematsu's conviction. On November 10, 1983, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of U.S. District Court in San Francisco formally vacated the conviction.
Under the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct (promulgated in 1983 as a result of the Watergate scandal), a prosecutor's deliberate suppression of exonerating evidence is grounds for disbarment. Fahy's actions are often mentioned in legal ethics textbooks as an example of why the modern rule is necessary.
President Bill Clinton awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, to Korematsu in 1998, saying, "In the long history of our country's constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls. Plessy, Brown, Parks ... to that distinguished list, today we add the name of Fred Korematsu."
A member and Elder of First Presbyterian Church of Oakland, Korematsu was twice President of San Leandro Lions Club, and for 15 years a volunteer with Boy Scouts of America, San Francisco Bay Council.
From 2001 until his death, Korematsu served on the Constitution Project's bipartisan Liberty and Security Committee. Discussing racial profiling in 2004, he warned, "No one should ever be locked away simply because they share the same race, ethnicity, or religion as a spy or terrorist. If that principle was not learned from the internment of Japanese Americans, then these are very dangerous times for our democracy."