Ex parte Endo

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In the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision on Ex parte Mitsuye Endo in December 1944, the court ruled that "citizens who are concededly loyal" could not be held in War Relocation Authority concentration camps. The ruling led to Japanese Americans being allowed to return to the West Coast and to the closing of the camps.

At the outbreak of World War II, Mitsuye Endo was a 22-year-old clerical worker for the California Department of Motor Vehicles based in Sacramento, one the few Nisei who had been able to secure a state job at a time when occupational discrimination against Japanese Americans was severe. In the hysteria following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Endo was among those Nisei state workers first harassed, then eventually fired from their jobs because of their racial ancestry. During this process, Saburo Kido, a lawyer and president of the Japanese American Citizens League vowed to assist them. He asked his friend, James Purcell, a San Francisco-based attorney, to help, and he agreed to do so without fee. The mass exclusion and detention of Japanese Americans on the West Coast beginning in the spring of 1942 added to the difficulty of the task. Seeking a test case for whom he could file a habeas corpus petition, he settled on Endo without actually meeting her based on her profile as a Nisei who was Christian, had a brother in the U.S. Army, had never been to Japan, and could neither speak nor read Japanese. Endo agreed to serve as the test case.

While Endo was incarcerated at Tule Lake, Purcell filed the habeas corpus petition seeking her release on July 13, 1942, arguing that her detention had deprived her of the right to report to work as a state employee, and that Public Law 503 did not allow military officials to order Japanese Americans detained. He further claimed that her detention was "undeclared martial law" since she had been detained without trial despite the fact that the courts had been functioning. Her petition was heard by Judge Michael Roche in July 1942, but he did not rule on the case for over a year. When he did rule in July 1943, he dismissed her petition without explanation. The case was appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where in April 1944, Judge William Denman invoked certification to the Supreme Court rather than ruling on the case. Throughout this time, Endo remained incarcerated (she moved from Tule Lake to Topaz after segregation), even rejecting an offer by the War Relocation Authority to release her as long as she agreed not to return to the West Coast, allowing her case to proceed.

Oral arguments before the Supreme Court took place in October 1944. In a unanimous ruling issued on December 18, 1944, the court decided in Endo's favor. The opinion, authored by Justice William O. Douglas, began:

We are of the view that Mitsuye Endo should be given her liberty. In reaching that conclusion we do not come to the underlying constitutional issues which have been argued. For we conclude that, whatever power the War Relocation Authority may have to detail other classes of citizens, it has no authority to subject citizens who are concededly loyal to its leave procedure.

Though freeing Endo and other Japanese Americans, the court avoided addressing the constitutionality of excluding and incarcerating Japanese Americans. Having been tipped off earlier, the Roosevelt administration had issued Public Proclamation 21 the day before the Endo ruling, rescinding the exclusion orders. Japanese Americans would be allowed to return to the West Coast in January 1945 and the concentration camps (with the exception of the "segregation center" at Tule Lake) shut down over the course of that year.

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

Ex Parte Mitsuye Endo, 323 U.S. 283 (1944) case transcript, http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/cgi-bin/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=323&invol=283.

Bangarth, Stephanie. Voices Raised in Protest: Defending Citizens of Japanese Ancestry in North America, 1942–49. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008.

Gudridge, Patrick O. "Remember Endo?" Harvard Law Review 116 (2003): 1933–70.

Irons, Peter. Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Kang, Jerry. "Denying Prejudice: Internment, Redress, and Denial." UCLA Law Review 51.4 (2004): 933–1013.

Muller, Eric. "An Online Mini-Symposium Commemorating the Life of Mitsuye Endo, A Quiet Civil Rights Hero." Is That Legal? blog, http://www.isthatlegal.org/archives/2006/06/this_week_at_is.html. [Includes links to articles by Greg Robinson, Patrick Gudridge, and Jerry Kang.]