Two of the three most infamous Supreme Court decisions were erased by events. The Civil War and postwar constitutional amendments effectively overturned Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), which held that blacks could never have rights that whites must respect. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which upheld segregation, was undone by court decisions and legislation.
Korematsu v. United States (1944), which affirmed the president's wartime power to sweep Americans of disfavored racial groups into concentration camps, elicited a 1988 congressional apology. Now Peter Irons, founder of the Earl Warren Bill of Rights Project at UC San Diego, is campaigning for a Supreme Court "repudiation" of the Korematsu decision and other Japanese internment rulings.
A repudiation would be unprecedented, but an essay that Irons is circulating among constitutional law professors whose support he seeks is timely reading in today's context of anti-constitutional presidencies, particularly regarding war powers.
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the military to "prescribe military areas ... from which any or all persons may be excluded." So 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds born here, were sent to camps in desolate Western locations. Supposedly, this was a precaution against espionage and sabotage. Actually, it rested entirely on the racial animus of Gen. John DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command.
Using government records, Irons demonstrates that because senior officials, including Solicitor General Charles Fahy, committed "numerous and knowing acts of governmental misconduct," the court based its decision on "records and arguments that were fabricated and fraudulent." Officials altered and destroyed evidence that would have revealed the racist motives for the internments. And to preserve the pretext of "military necessity" for the concentration camps, officials suppressed reports on the lack of evidence of disloyalty or espionage by Japanese-Americans.
The 1943 "Final Report" on Japanese "evacuation," prepared under DeWitt's direction and signed by him, said a Japanese invasion was probable, that "racial characteristics" of Japanese-Americans predisposed them to assist the invasion. When War Department officials objected to such assertions, DeWitt ordered all copies and records of the original report destroyed.
Also kept from the court was a report, prepared for the chief of naval operations, estimating potentially disloyal Japanese as just 3 percent of the Japanese-American population, and declaring that these were "well known to naval intelligence" and could be quickly apprehended, if necessary.
The Korematsu decision reflected perennial dangers: panic and excessive deference to presidents or others who would suspend constitutional protections in the name of wartime exigencies. It is less important that the decision be repudiated than that it be remembered.
Especially by those currently clamoring, since Boston, for a U.S. citizen -- arrested in America, and concerning whom there is no evidence of a connection with a terror network -- to be detained as an "enemy combatant." The Korematsu case is a reminder that waiving constitutional rights is rarely necessary and rarely ends well.
George Will is a syndicated columnist.