Main content

Korematsu v. U.S. — Balancing Liberties and Safety

In times of war, courts are sometimes asked to balance individual rights and public safety. What are the lessons to be learned from the tensions arising out of this case?

In 1998, Fred Korematsu was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His journey to that day started during World War II when he refused to be forced into a Japanese-American relocation center where families lived in horse stalls at an abandoned race track until they were sent to remote internment camps in the West.

During the World War II, Japanese Americans were regarded as a threat to U.S. security. However, Korematsu stood up for his rights as an American-born citizen. He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which rejected his claim that the relocation of Japanese Americans during the War was based on racial bias. 

Three of the nine Supreme Court Justices sided with Korematsu in separate, strongly worded dissents. Almost 50 years later, the federal court that originally convicted Korematsu for resisting the mass internment, reopened his case and found significant government fraud in justifying the internment of innocent Americans. That “coram nobis” litigation cleared Korematsu’s name and the names of 120,000 other incarcerated Japanese Americans, and it laid the legal cornerstone for the 1988 Civil Liberties Act that apologized, conferred $20,000 individual reparations and created a public education fund so that “it” would not happen again, to anyone. Korematsu is the name now spoken with those of other great Civil Rights leaders.

Korematsu v. U.S. is an example of the importance and the historical impact of what often are called “fiery dissents.” In this 6-3 decision, each dissenting justice wrote an opinion addressing the flaws in the majority opinion. It is also an example of how dogged pursuit of justice through the coram nobis cases, even decades later, can have a major impact on social justice.

What's Different About This Activity?
  • Presents a Landmark Case
  • Is an Engaging Court Simulation
  • Judge and Attorneys are Ready in 30 Minutes
  • Involves Every Learning Style
  • Centerpiece is Jury Deliberations
  • Presents the Power of Dissents
  • Gives Experience of Dealing with Balancing Rights and Safety
  • Shows Impact of Courts on Law-Abiding People 

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is described as the nation’s highest honor that can be given to a civilian. It is given by the sitting President in recognition of “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. Here is an excerpt from the citation by President Bill Clinton when he presented the medal:

“An American who wanted only to be treated like every other American, Fred Korematsu challenged our nation's conscience, reminding us that we must uphold the rights of our own citizens even as we fight tyranny in other lands.

Defying the 1942 order for the internment of Japanese Americans, he stood strong against anti-Asian prejudice in the United States during World War II. Convicted of violating the order, he waited more than 40 years for justice, when a federal court overturned the judgment that the Supreme Court first upheld against him.... Fred Korematsu deserves our respect and thanks for his patient pursuit to preserve the civil liberties we hold dear.”

Watch President Bill Clinton give Fred Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

How to Use These Resources

To get started, download the agenda, civil discourse guidelines, and the complete activity package.

  1. In-Court Preparation. While waiting for the program to start, participants read Korematsu v. U.S. the facts and case summary. Then also read Executive Order #9066. The attorney volunteers will present and explain these documents during the program.
  2. Student Attorneys. Students volunteer to be attorneys for each side – four for Korematsu and four for the United States. They work in a nearby room for about 20-minutes with their respective attorney coaches to review the scripted opening protocol, the talking points, and the closing arguments guide sheet for each side.  These are suggested points – not a script – for the student-attorneys’ arguments. Student attorneys are encouraged to add their own arguments. During the courtroom simulation, the presiding Judge asks questions of each student attorney after the student makes his/her argument.   
  3. Student Jurors.  All other students are jurors who deliberate in the courtroom after the closing arguments. To prepare for the deliberations, they work with the assigned law clerks or volunteer attorneys to fill out the arguments worksheet. The answer key also is included. They are allowed to refer to it during the deliberations. The presiding Judge, volunteer attorneys, and student attorneys observe the jury deliberations from their places in the courtroom; however, they may not participate verbally or nonverbally. Jurors are prohibited from asking questions of them.
  4. Jury Deliberations. To get the deliberations started, the program moderator asks an open-ended question that launches the civil discussion. The moderator enforces the rules of civil discourse and makes sure that no one dominates the discussion.  Everyone should have the opportunity to speak, at least, once. When the debate winds down, the Judge asks for a show-of-hands vote. Because of time constraints, the verdict does not have to be unanimous. 

DISCLAIMER: These resources are created by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for educational purposes only. They may not reflect the current state of the law, and are not intended to provide legal advice, guidance on litigation, or commentary on any pending case or legislation.