A Conversation on the Constitution with Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy: The Importance of the Japanese Internment Cases

Length: 36 minutes

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the U.S. government sent individuals of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast to internment camps. The Hirabayashi and Korematsu cases challenged the government’s right to restrict the liberty of this population of citizens and noncitizens. The Supreme Court upheld the government’s actions in each case. Three Supreme Court Justices discuss these landmark cases—specifically, the balance the court tries to strike between individual rights and national security in times of war in light of the Constitution’s provision that “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

Photographs from U.S. War Relocation Authority,
Farm Security Administration and
Office of War Information Collection
(Library of Congress).


The Constitution in Context: Constitutional scholars and legal experts discuss the issues in the Japanese internment cases as raised by the Justices.

What are the most important things that we should know about the Korematsu and Hirabayashi decisions?

Since Korematsu was not overturned, is it still a precedent today?

How do the Constitution and the courts decide how to balance individual rights and national security in times of war?  

Does the president have the power to suspend the rule of habeas corpus?

Are there rights that can be suspended in times of war?  And if so, what are they?

Why are independent courts important?

Are there rights that are so fundamental that the president and Congress cannot suspend them, even in times of war?

If circumstances similar to those during the Japanese internment era were present today, would it be ruled constitutional to intern some groups of citizens?

Personal recollections by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

Did Japanese-Americans serve in the U.S. military during World War II?


Additional Resources from the Library of Congress



Experiencing the War: Japanese-Americans' accounts