In a 6-3 decision, the Court sided with the government, ruling that the exclusion order was constitutional. The opinion, written by Supreme Court justice Hugo Black, held that the need to protect against espionage outweighed Fred Korematsu's individual rights, and the rights of Americans of Japanese descent. (The Court limited its decision to the validity of the exclusion orders, adding, "The provisions of other orders requiring persons of Japanese ancestry to report to assembly centers and providing for the detention of such persons in assembly and relocation centers were separate, and their validity is not in issue in this proceeding.")
The decision in Korematsu v. United States has been very controversial. Indeed, Korematsu's conviction for evading internment was overturned on November 10, 1983, after Korematsu challenged the earlier decision by filing for a writ of coram nobis. In a ruling by Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California granted the writ (that is, it voided Korematsu's original conviction) because in Korematsu's original case, the government had knowingly submitted false information to the Supreme Court that had a material impact on the Supreme Court's decision.
The Korematsu decision has not been explicitly overturned. Indeed, the Korematsu ruling is significant both for being the first instance of the Supreme Court applying the strict scrutiny standard to racial discrimination by the government and for being one of only a tiny handful of cases in which the Court held that the government met that standard.
On May 19, 1942, during World War II, western Japanese Americans were forced to move into relocation camps by Civilian Restrictive Order No. 1, 8 Fed. Reg. 982. This order, and other similar orders, were based upon Executive Order 9066 (February 19, 1942), which was specifically a result of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the ensuing anti-Japanese sentiment in America. This order and congressional statutes gave the military authority to exclude citizens of Japanese ancestry from areas that were deemed critical to national defense and potentially vulnerable to espionage.
A number of significant legal decisions arose out of Japanese American internment, relating to the powers of the government to detain citizens in wartime. Among the cases which reached the Supreme Court were Yasui v. United States (1943), Hirabayashi v. United States (1943), Ex parte Endo (1944), as well as Korematsu. In Yasui and Hirabayashi, the court upheld the constitutionality of curfews based on Japanese ancestry. In Endo, the court accepted a petition for a writ of habeas corpus and ruled that the WRA had no authority to subject a citizen whose loyalty was acknowledged to its procedures.
Fred Korematsu was a U.S.-born Japanese American man who decided to stay in San Leandro, California and knowingly violate Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34 of the U.S. Army, because he refused to be separated from his Italian-American girlfriend. He was arrested and convicted. No question was raised as to Korematsu's loyalty to the United States. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
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.
I dissent, therefore, from this legalization of racism. Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting, but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States. All residents of this nation are kin in some way by blood or culture to a foreign land. Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of the new and distinct civilization of the United States. They must, accordingly, be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment, and as entitled to all the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.Justice Murphy's two uses of the term "racism" in this opinion, along with two additional uses in his concurrence in Steele v. Louisville & Nashville R. Co., decided the same day, are not the first appearances of the word "racism" in a United States Supreme Court opinion. The first appearance was in Justice Murphy's concurrence in Ex parte Endo, . The term was also used in other cases, such as Duncan v. Kahanamoku, and Oyama v. California, . It then disappeared from the court's lexicon for 18 years — it reappeared in Brown v. Louisiana, . It did not appear in Loving v. Virginia, , although that case did talk about racial discrimination and interracial marriages.
He nonetheless dissented, writing that, even if the courts should not be put in the position of second-guessing or interfering with the orders of military commanders, that does not mean that they should have to ratify or enforce those orders if they are unconstitutional. Indeed, he warns that the precedent of Korematsu might last well beyond the war and the internment:
A military order, however unconstitutional, is not apt to last longer than the military emergency. Even during that period, a succeeding commander may revoke it all. But once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, or rather rationalizes the Constitution to show that the Constitution sanctions such an order, the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens. The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need. Every repetition imbeds that principle more deeply in our law and thinking and expands it to new purposes.
Former Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark, who represented the U.S. Department of Justice in the "relocation," writes in the Epilogue to the book Executive Order 9066: The Internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans (written by Maisie and Richard Conrat):
The truth is, the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, and despite the Fifth Amendment's command that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, both of these constitutional safeguards were denied by military action under Executive Order 9066…
As earlier stated, Korematsu challenged the earlier decision through a writ of coram nobis in the early 1980s. In 1984, in Korematsu v. United States, 584 F. Supp. 1406 (N.D. Cal. 1984), the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted his writ and overturned Korematsu's original conviction. In that decision, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel held that "there is substantial support in the record that the government deliberately omitted relevant information and provided misleading information in papers before the court" — information that was critical to the Supreme Court's original decision in 1944. In particular, the government suppressed information that their stated military justification for the exclusion and internment of Japanese Americans was, in the words of Department of Justice officials writing during the war, based on "willful historical inaccuracies and intentional falsehoods." However, the District Court emphasized that in issuing this decision, it only had the power to correct errors of fact, not errors of law. The essential holding of the 1944 Korematsu decision — namely, that a race-based exclusion program founded on considerations of military judgment did not violate the Constitution — remained untouched. Judge Patel concluded:
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 exercise their authority to protect all citizens from the petty fears and prejudices that are so easily aroused.
The 2001 documentary Of Civil Wrongs and Rights tells the story of the 1983 court case and of Korematsu's life before and after that decision. Peter Irons' book Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases describes the government deceptions in the original Korematsu case.
The U.S. Government officially apologized for the internment in the 1980s and paid reparations totaling $1.2 billion, as well as an additional $400 million in benefits signed into law by George H. W. Bush in 1992. In January of 1998, President Bill Clinton named Fred Korematsu a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 2004, Korematsu filed an amicus curiae brief in the case of Rasul v. Bush, in which Guantanamo detainees challenged their detention as enemy combatants by the Bush administration. In the brief, Korematsu argued, "The extreme nature of the government’s position in these cases is reminiscent of its positions in past episodes, in which the United States too quickly sacrificed civil liberties in the rush to accommodate overbroad claims of military necessity."
In March 2005, Korematsu died at the age of 86. It has been revealed that the United States government suppressed the fact that its own intelligence had established that the interned Japanese Americans were not a security risk, even as the matter was litigated before the Supreme Court.