Screen readers: Two navigational links to follow.Skip to site navigation.Skip to page content.
The University of Iowa News Services
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us

University of Iowa News Release


Feb. 5, 2007

Law Class To Examine Supreme Court Civil Rights Decisions During Wartime

The conflict between national security and civil liberties is always tense during wartime, but never more so than during the ongoing war on terror. A course offered this spring by the University of Iowa College of Law will look at how the Supreme Court has dealt with those tensions.

The course, "The Supreme Court In Wartime," will be offered March 12-16 and be taught by Judge John M. Ferren, a visiting professor and judge on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The course will examine Supreme Court responses to the pressures of wartime by examining decisions mainly from the current war on terror and from World War II, and the effects those decisions had on civil rights.

"This is a very important time in American legal history because the Supreme Court has been looking at cases that will determine what is an enemy combatant, what rights they have, and who determines their status, the courts, a military tribunal or the President," said Ferren. Although the issues do not directly affect most Americans, he said their broader implications do.

"In many ways, the Guantanamo Bay detention center is a small-scale version of a mass detention, and it raises many troubling constitutional issues that affect us all," he said.

Among the World War II-era decisions the class will study is Korematsu v. United States, the landmark case in which the Supreme Court refused to stop the U.S. government from forcing Japanese-Americans into internment camps, and In re Yamashita, in which the court upheld the conviction and execution of a Japanese general convicted of war crimes by a military tribunal.

The class will also study the many cases that have come before the High Court since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks about defining and confining enemy combatants, including the decisions in the Hamdi, Padilla, Rasul and Hamdan cases. Two U.S. Courts of Appeals are expected to issue decisions in other war on terror cases Al-Marri, concerning a foreign national arrested in the U.S. and held in South Carolina, and other cases brought by numerous detainees arrested abroad and held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that might be in the news while the class is meeting, he said.

Ferren said that studying past Supreme Court decisions about legal issues raised by wartime pressures helps the legal system avoid the mistakes of the past. The most obvious mistake, he said, was the decision in the Korematsu case, a decision condemned today by most legal authorities.

"The camps were clearly not necessary, and Congress has apologized and reparations have been paid to survivors," he said. "It's a terrible stain on our legal heritage."

It was the Korematsu decision, as well as the Yamashita decision, that stimulated Ferren's interest in the wartime decisions of the Supreme Court. One justice involved in both decisions was Wiley Rutledge, who was dean of the UI College of Law before his appointment to the federal bench in 1939, and the subject of a biography by Ferren.

"I read those decisions during my research and they got me interested in how the Supreme Court handles the pressures of making decisions in a war," said Ferren. "I started thinking about whether war justifies bending the Constitution in directions not acceptable in peacetime, and from that I developed this class."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010,