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Korematsu v. United States (1944)

Thirty years ago next month, justice delayed finally arrived for a pioneer of racial equality, Fred Korematsu.  The most famous challenger of the Japanese-American internment had his conviction overturned as a result of information showing the government had withheld vital evidence from the both the Supreme Court and Mr. Korematsu’s defense team, led by CCE founder Charles Horsky.

Fred Korematsu was an American citizen of Japanese descent, living in California in 1942 when Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34 was promulgated by the War Department, ordering all persons of Japanese descent in California to report to relocation camps.  He refused, and was arrested and convicted under a statute which created criminal sanctions for civilians who refused military orders.  The ACLU took on his case, which reached the Supreme Court in 1944.  In a 6-3 decision, the Court upheld Korematsu’s conviction.  In addition to its historical significance, the case had great legal impact because it was the first time the Court created a separate standard of review for a law utilizing a suspect classification, stating that laws which discriminate on the basis of race “are immediately suspect” and must be subjected to “the most rigid scrutiny.”  In addition, the dissent of Justice Murphy is still considered to be one of the strongest denunciations of racism to come from the Court in the 20th Century.

Despite losing his case, history vindicated Mr. Korematsu.  In 1983, as a result of evidence that the Solicitor General suppressed reports showing that the War Department exaggerated the threat posed by the Japanese population, a writ of coram nobis was granted, overturning Korematsu’s conviction.  Mr. Horsky later said that he also felt justified by the writ, since he had doubted the government’s evidence and had always been troubled about losing Korematsu’s case.

The spirit of justice and civic engagement that led Charles Horsky to fight for Fred Korematsu later led him to fight for the interests of the District, and eventually to create CCE.  CCE was recently given access to Mr. Horsky’s private library by his daughter Maggie Nunez, and his firm, Covington & Burling LLP.  CCE thanks both Ms. Nunez for allowing CCE access to her father’s books, and Covington & Burling for their assistance and their continued involvement on our board.


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