The internment of Japanese-Americans following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was shameful not only because of the fact that it was allowed to happen, but mostly because it was a national public policy joined in by all branches of the American government. President Roosevelt initiated the policy as the head of the executive branch by issuing executive orders declaring zones of exclusion for people of Japanese backgrounds, curfews, and even relocation programs to what some scholars have referred to as quasi-concentration camps.
The legislative branch failed to protect the rights of these Japanese Americans; instead, “On March 21, 1942, Congress ratified and confirmed Executive Order No. 9066, which authorized criminal penalties for persons disobeying exclusion orders” (Justl, 2009, p. 272). Ultimately, with both the executive and legislative branches having failed to protect or defend the rights of American citizens of Japanese ancestry, the United States Supreme Court would be called upon to decide whether these orders and policies were in violation of the American constitution.
To be sure, the notion that Americans could be rounded up and compelled through force to confined in internment camps seems to offend the dearest principles of American liberty and justice. Hoping that the judicial branch would extend the constitutional guarantees to American citizens of Japanese ancestry, a man named Korematsu filed suit alleging that these orders and policies violated the American constitution in a case now well-known as Korematsu v. United States. This particular case originated when an American citizen, who was born and raised in San Francisco, openly refuse to obey the exclusion order issued by President Roosevelt.
Korematsu was loyal to the United States, having volunteered for military service though rejected because of health limitations, and there existed absolutely no evidence that he posed even a minor threat to American national security. He was allegedly subject to the exclusion order purely because of is Japanese ancestry. Korematsu was gainfully employed, he had a girlfriend who was not of Japanese ancestry, and he took deliberate steps to avoid and later challenge the constitutionality of the exclusion order. Ultimately, he was arrested and relocated to an internment camp.
Specifically, he was arrested because he refused to leave an area open to others but closed to those of Japanese ancestry and because he refused to voluntarily report to an internment camp. The judicial branch, like the executive and legislative branches before, failed to protect the rights of Japanese-Americans; indeed, “the Supreme Court upheld the exclusion order and Korematsu’s conviction” (Justl, 2009, p. 274). Significantly, however, the Supreme Court’s decision was a six to three majority rather than a unanimous decision.
The majority reasoned that war constituted a national emergency and that certain laws and orders designed to prevent spying or sabotage were sufficient bases upon which to restrict or eliminate individual rights protected in the constitution for the duration of the emergency. This case and its rationale still functions as a landmark type of legal case because it stands for the proposition that the constitutional rights of Americans can be suspended in times of national emergency.
The minority opinions, recorded in dissents in the Korematsu case, argued that these laws were racist that they offended American ideals, and that the rights guaranteed by the American constitution ought to always apply regardless of alleged fears and national emergencies. This case effectively allows the judicial branch to relinquish its sacred duties as guardian of the constitution in national emergencies; this, in turn, gives the executive and legislative branches powers perhaps not intended when the founders of the constitution sought to create a stable balance of powers.
In the final analysis, the Korematsu case is troubling because it stands for a legal principle that transcends its origins. More particularly, it can be seen in contemporary times that the War on Terror has been used as an indefinite type of national emergency to restrict or eliminate rights for American citizens even though the main enemies have been defined as foreign nationals. Arab-Americans and Muslims have in this way replaced the Japanese-Americans of World-War Two.
Additionally, the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been treated as a type of environmental national emergency and the media has been restricted by the American Coast Guard from covering the story on-site. Korematsu is a tragedy both because of the individual harm done to Fred Korematsu and because it continues to stand for a proposition to the effect that politicians can cry “national emergency” in order to suspend or eliminate constitutional rights for different classes of American citizens.
It is perhaps time that the Supreme Court reasserts its intended role as a true guardian of the constitution by accepting a case challenging the Korematsu precedent so that it can eliminate the vague national emergency exception. References Justl, J. M. (2009). Disastrously Misunderstood: Judicial Deference in the Japanese-American Cases. Yale Law Journal, 119(2), 270+. Retrieved June 2, 2010, from Questia database: http://www. questia. com/PM. qst? a=o&d=5036190287