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Courts and the executive in wartime: A comparative study of the American and British approaches to the internment of citizens during World War II and their lessons for today


This Article compares and contrasts the legal and political treatment of the detention of citizens during World War II in Great Britain and the United States. Specifically, it explores the detentions as they unfolded, the very different positions that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill took with respect to the detention of citizens, and the manner in which British and American courts reviewed challenges brought by those detained during the war. Comparing the experiences of the two countries reveals that in both cases the courts deferred extensively to the political branches when it came to reviewing challenges to the wartime detention policies, essentially staking out roles that left them largely relegated to the sidelines of public debates over the propriety of internment policies. A comparison of the British and American experiences also reveals that, as the war continued, the two chief executives struck decidedly different positions as to the wisdom and lawfulness of detention policies directed at citizens. In the United States, Roosevelt ignored the legal advice of many of his key advisers regarding the unconstitutionality of the detention of Japanese American citizens and-again against the advice of his advisers-later delayed the closing of the internment camps until after the 1944 election. By contrast, Churchill-who operated in a different legal context that granted him greater powers than his American counterpart-came to view such policies as inconsistent with British constitutional tradition and became a crucial voice urging the termination of such detentions. The Article then attempts to understand both why the two executives charted different courses on this issue as the war unfolded and whether there are any lessons to be drawn from these events with respect to how we should think about the separation of powers during wartime today. Focusing on the British experience during the war, Churchill's change of course suggests that the executive can and sometimes will take the lead in declaring and protecting a country's constitutional values without prodding by the courts, even in wartime, and even in the absence of legal compulsion. But as is explored in the pages that follow, the British experience may be a particularly British story and more generally one that differed in significant ways from the American story. This, in turn, calls into question just how much the British experience during the war should inform debates over the separation of powers in American constitutional law. The American experience during the war, moreover, proves a cautionary tale. Specifically, it reveals a series of failings on the part of the executive branch to acknowledge and engage with the facts on the ground and honor long-accepted constitutional traditions in formulating wartime policies. This example therefore suggests that the executive branch is ill equipped to self-regulate on this score in times of war. These failings in turn call into question the common practice of courts to defer extensively to the executive on matters of national security and more generally implicate fundamental questions about the judicial role in a constitutional democracy. Although grounded in events that took place over seven decades ago, this study is undertaken for a very timely purpose. Once again, we live in a time in which the executive branch has argued that its decisions ostensibly predicated upon heightened concerns about national security should receive extensive, if not complete, deference from the Supreme Court. In addressing such arguments now and in the future, the Court would be wise to remember how judicial deference to executive branch assertions on matters of national security played out during World War II.

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