Yusuf Mian | May 10, 2019
In a time where “Congress vs the President” comes up over and over again in the news, the Supreme Court is arguably the one branch of government that many of us know the least about. If I asked most people to think of the most influential Supreme Court decision they knew of, most people would only have a few ideas come to mind. Many would have none. Some of the most well-known decisions are cases like Brown v. Board of Education or Plessy v. Ferguson. However, I believe that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Korematsu v. United States has had the greatest impact — unfortunately, a negative one — on how we think about the balance between civil liberties and national security today.
For those who are not familiar with the case, it comes from Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American who was arrested and convicted for refusing the U.S. government’s order to be held in internment camps during World War II. Korematsu challenged the constitutionality of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. This executive order required anyone of Japanese descent to be held in internment camps because they were assumed to be national security threats. The United States government genuinely believed that this was the right thing to do to protect the country from the Japanese in World War II and they arrested Korematsu for treason. Korematsu saw it as the government attempting to take all of his basic rights away from him. In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Korematsu with a vote of 6-3. In the majority opinion, Justice Hugo Black argued that the need to protect against espionage, especially during wartime, was more important than protecting the basic civil liberties of the many detained Americans. Korematsu was eventually released from prison and probation, but the damage of the Supreme Court decision had already been done.
This ruling set a scary precedent that was not formally rebuked by the Supreme Court until 2018. In Justice Roberts’ majority opinion in the Trump v. Hawaii case, which was a challenge to President Trump’s travel ban, he formally rebuked the Korematsu decision and for the first time ever, overruled Korematsu v. United States. After World War II ended, it became clear that none of the detained Japanese Americans had spied for Japan or otherwise been disloyal to the United States. They were detained simply because of their Japanese descent. Even though Korematsu v. United States was never directly used as a precedent to call for the internment of another specific group, the idea that the rights of citizens can be taken away for national security purposes was established. Also, Korematsu went so far in taking away civil liberties without due process that it allowed the government to justify less extreme measures simply by distinguishing them from Korematsu. For example, in Trump v. Hawaii, the U.S. government established the differences between President Trump’s “Muslim Ban” and the facts of the previous ruling in Korematsu, which allowed the Supreme Court to uphold the ban. As a Muslim American in a time where there is so much Islamophobia, this is especially disturbing to me. Even if President Trump’s travel ban may not directly affect me, the President has proposed other bigoted ideas such as a Muslim registry, which would infringe upon the basic rights of all Muslim Americans. This type of registry could be defended by distinguishing a registry from the internment of citizens like in Korematsu. Once a landmark case like Korematsu allows for civil liberties to be taken away to such a great extent, it takes a long time to bring back the balance between civil liberties and national security and to truly protect the basic rights of all Americans. Unfortunately, we have not reached that point yet. Because of our fears, hatred and prejudice and not because of real national security concerns, it could take many years for us to get to a point where we are upfront about the fact that internment, travel bans, registries and other similar measures infringe on the civil liberties of an entire group of people.
When the Supreme Court of the United States deals a blow to civil liberties like they did in Korematsu v. United States, it takes years of new cases and new laws to restore civil liberties and justice to the issue. On the issue of the government taking basic rights away from specific groups because of their race, ethnicity, or religion, we have not been able to tip the scales back to the side of justice. This is why it is important to recognize every case, even the ones that we disagree with, so that we can restore liberty and justice for all.
So the next time that we think about the Supreme Court, we should realize the vast impact that it can have on us as a nation.