Legal scholar Peter Irons, a leading academic expert on the Japanese internment cases, has written a powerful article calling on the Supreme Court to explicitly repudiate those decisions [HT: Constitutional Law Prof blog]. Those notorious cases, most notably Korematsu v. United States, upheld the forcible detention of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II, as well as various other racially discriminatory policies against them.
I. The Case for Repudiation.
As Irons notes, the overwhelming majority of legal scholars and jurists now recognize that the Japanese internment cases were outrageous injustices. They are among the most reviled decisions in Supreme Court history. In 1988, Congress and President Ronald Reagan formally denounced the internment, apologized to the surviving victims, and enacted a law compensating them for their losses (albeit, inadequately, given that each was paid only $20,000 in compensation for some three years of imprisonment, and the loss of large amounts of income and property). The Supreme Court itself has made negative references to these cases in more recent decisions, but has never formally overruled any of them. While lawyers today would be ill-advised to rely on these cases in their arguments, they are technically still on the books, and could potentially be used as precedents in the future – especially if changes in public or elite opinion make racially discriminatory war policies more popular than they are now.
In the article, Irons complies extensive evidence that federal government officials – including the Solicitor General of the United States – deceived the Supreme Court about the extent of the supposed security threat posed by the Japanese-Americans. He also cites evidence (long recognized by other scholars) that racism was in fact the most important motive for the internment policy. For example, General John DeWitt, the official who actually […]