Rule: State laws restricting the rights of persons based on race are subject to strict scrutiny and will only be upheld if they further a “pressing public necessity.”
Facts: On May 9, 1942 under Civilian Restrictive Order No. 1, based on Executive Order 9066, Japanese-Americans were ordered to move to relocation camps in light of the United States’ involvement in World War II. Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34 specifically excluded Japanese Americans from remaining in San Leandro, California, a region designated as a “Military Area.” Korematsu (defendant) was an American citizen of Japanese descent who was convicted by the United States Government (plaintiff), in federal district court for violating Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34. No questions were raised as to Korematsu’s loyalty to the United States. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, and the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Reasoning (Hugo Black): Although all legal restrictions which restrict the civil rights of a single racial group are automatically suspect, it does not follow that all such restrictions are automatically unconstitutional. Such restrictions are subject to rigid scrutiny by the courts, and will only be upheld in instances of a “pressing public necessity.” A comparison is made of the present case to a prior decision in Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81 (1943), that upheld a conviction for the violation of a curfew order by a Japanese American during World War II. It was determined in Hirabayashi that the order was designed as a “protection against espionage and against sabotage.” Applying Hirabayashi to the present case, it is within the power of Congress and the executive branch to exclude Japanese Americans from the West Coast war area during World War II when the United States is in conflict with Japan. Like the curfew order, the same concerns over preventing espionage and sabotage constitute a sufficient “pressing public necessity” to justify excluding Japanese Americans from their homes in particular areas during the war effort. It does not matter that many Japanese Americans remain loyal to the United States because the military has determined that many others retain loyalties to the Japanese government. The United States Government does not have the resources to make individualized determinations of loyalty during the war effort, therefore exclusion of Korematsu from the West Coast, regardless of his personal loyalties, is justified because of the existence of a “pressing public necessity.”
Dissent (Robert Jackson): The authority of the military to enact provisions like the Civilian Exclusion Order is not unlimited. Whenever the military decides to act in this way to protect its security interests in a war area, the need for protection based on the situation on the ground is likely very grave. However, even in light of these pressing circumstances, the military’s actions are constrained by the Constitution. The judiciary is ill-equipped to evaluate the reasonableness of military decisions, however, it should not acquiesce to the decisions of military superiors when these decisions are clearly unconstitutional.
Quoting Jackson's dissent:
""Korematsu was born on our soil, of parents born in Japan. The Constitution makes him a citizen of the United States by nativity and a citizen of California by residence. No claim is made that he is not loyal to this country. There is no suggestion that apart from the matter involved here he is not law abiding and well disposed. Korematsu, however, has been convicted of an act not commonly a crime. It consists merely of being present in the state whereof he is a citizen, near the place where he was born, and where all his life he has lived. [...] [H]is crime would result, not from anything he did, said, or thought, different than they, but only in that he was born of different racial stock. Now, if any fundamental assumption underlies our system, it is that guilt is personal and not inheritable. Even if all of one's antecedents had been convicted of treason, the Constitution forbids its penalties to be visited upon him. But here is an attempt to make an otherwise innocent act a crime merely because this prisoner is the son of parents as to whom he had no choice, and belongs to a race from which there is no way to resign. If Congress in peace-time legislation should enact such a criminal law, I should suppose this Court would refuse to enforce it."