opening brief in the matter of the application of Mitsuye Endo for a writ of habeas corpus
February 1, 2024

A Quiet Civil Rights Hero: Mitsuye Endo’s Landmark Supreme Court Case

During World War II, four legal cases challenged the U.S. policy of Japanese incarceration. All of them reached the United States Supreme Court. But only one, the 1944 case of Mitsue Endo—Ex parte Mitsuye Endo—was successful. CHS invited guest writer Alison Moore to explore the significance of the Endo case as the story of an unsung hero and a triumph of civil rights in time of war.

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A Quiet Civil Rights Hero: Mitsuye Endo’s Landmark Supreme Court Case

Petitioner’s opening brief in the matter of the application of Mitsuye Endo for a writ of habeas corpus, 1942
Courtesy of the California Historical Society, ACLU Northern California Records


American-born Mitsuye Endo, at her job as a Sacramento civil servant, 1942
Courtesy National Archives


February marks the anniversary of Executive Order 9066.  Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it required the forced removal from the West Coast of nearly 120,000 persons of Japanese descent—most of them American citizens. The stated justification by the government at the time was for reasons of national security. In addition to forced removal and without due process of the law, everyone who fell under the government order was also imprisoned in a succession of hastily fashioned barbed-wire-surrounded facilities scattered throughout the west and as far east as Arkansas.


Sites in the western United States of Japanese Americans relocations during World War II 
Courtesy Portland Japanese American Citizens League

In 1942, Mitsuye Endo, a 22-year-old native of Sacramento, was working for the State of California when she was ordered to leave her job, along with all other employees of Japanese descent.  “We were given a piece of paper,” Endo later recalled, “saying we were suspended because we were of Japanese ancestry.” Like many others, Endo worked for the government because “there was so much discrimination against the Japanese Americans the only position we could get was with the state unless we worked for a Japanese firm.” Following her dismissal by the state, she was subsequently ordered to leave her home and community per the requirements of the Executive Order.



Japanese Ousted from Sacramento, 1942
Courtesy of The Sacramento Bee

Sent first to the Walarga Assembly Center near Sacramento, Endo was then imprisoned in far northern California at the government’s isolated Tule Lake War Relocation Center (renamed the Tule Lake Segregation Center in 1943). While there, she answered a questionnaire given to her and other prisoners by San Francisco attorney James Purcell, who had been retained by a number of the fired State employees. Purcell was seeking a good candidate among the group for a test case challenging the government’s authority to imprison loyal American citizens. Mitsuye Endo’s answers satisfied Purcell’s requirements, and Endo agreed to pursue the legal challenge.



Aerial View, Tule Lake War Relocation Center, 1941/46
Courtesy California State University, Sacramento, Special Collections and University Archives


Site of former Tule Lake incarceration camp, 2016
Courtesy Alison Moore

According to the Densho Encyclopedia: “While Endo was incarcerated at Tule Lake, Purcell filed [a] 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.”

James Purcell (1906–1991)
Courtesy Kathleen Purcell

Other, more well-known cases concerning the Executive Order were also filed during these years, including those of Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Minoru Yasui, each one challenging a different aspect of the government order. In two of these four cases—all of which made it to the Supreme Court—the individuals, Hirabayashi and Yasui, chose to challenge the government. Korematsu and Endo on the other hand, were asked to participate in the test cases. To the attorneys, their unassuming lives and absence of any loyalty to the nation of Japan made them no different than any other U.S. citizens. “They felt that I represented a symbolic, ‘loyal’ American,” Endo later recounted.

(Left to right) Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, Fred Korematsu, 2009
Courtesy Family of Fred T. Korematsu

After Tule Lake, Endo, like Korematsu, was transferred to the government’s Central Utah Relocation Center, also known as the Topaz camp—another prison camp in a stretch of empty desert, surrounded by barbed wire, with armed guards in watch towers. Endo’s case, argued by Purcell in court in July 1942, was not decided for an entire year when in July 1943, a judge dismissed her petition. In 1944, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California filed a brief of Amicus Curiae (friend of the Court) in support of Mitsuye Endo. Purcell, with support from the ACLU and others, appealed the case, which was ultimately sent to the Supreme Court.

Application for permission to file an Amicus Curiae brief, 1944
Courtesy of the California Historical Society, ACLU Northern California Records

Despite an offer by the government to leave Topaz—as long as she did not return to the West Coast—Endo stayed at the camp upon the advice of Purcell, who thought that remaining in the camp would improve her chances of success. Many other Topaz prisoners, including Fred Korematsu, did take the government’s offer to leave the camps and, for the duration of the war, made their homes in the Midwest and other places away from the Pacific Coast.

Staying in camp became difficult for Endo, she recalled in a later interview: “During that time in camp, I was anxious to have my case settled because most of my friends had already gone out, been relocated, and I was anxious to get out too. But I was told to remain there until I got a notice from our attorney that I could leave. . . . I could have left earlier, but Purcell needed me to be in camp.”

Topaz internees gather to bid goodbye to friends and relatives leaving the camp, 1943
Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

On December 18, 1944, the same day that the Supreme Court ruled against Fred Korematsu, the justices decided in favor of Mitsuye Endo, ruling unanimously, 9-0, in Endo’s favor. Writing for the entire Court, Justice William O. Douglas said, “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.”  (Emphasis added)

Having been tipped off that the Endo case would prevail in court, the War Relocation Authority announced the day before her judgment that all detained citizens were to be released from the camps starting in January 1945.

First Family to leave Topaz Camp for California, 1945
http://historyinphotos.blogspot.com; photograph by Charles Mace

It is often stated that it took a number of years for the government to admit the racism inherent in the Executive Order signed by President Roosevelt. Speaking for the majority in the Endo case in 1944, however, Justice Frank Murphy wrote, “Detention in Relocation Centers of persons of Japanese ancestry regardless of loyalty is not only unauthorized by Congress or the Executive but is another example of the unconstitutional resort to racism inherent in the entire evacuation program. . . . [R]acial discrimination of this nature bears no reasonable relation to military necessity and is utterly foreign to the ideals and traditions of the American people.”

Of the four cases heard by the Supreme Court, Mitsuye Endo’s was the only one that was successful. Despite the landmark nature of her case, and the way in which it forced the government to admit its own anti-democratic tendencies, Endo is an almost unknown figure in the pantheon of American civil rights heroes, having consciously chosen to avoid the spotlight. Law Professor Eric Muller of the University of North Carolina, who has written extensively about the denial of civil liberties to Japanese Americans during World War II, has called Endo a “quiet civil rights hero.”

(Above and below) Topaz camp site, 2013


Endo’s own daughter was unaware of her mother’s role in U.S. civil liberties history until she was in her twenties. In her only interview, an oral history by author John Tateishi in the 1980s, Endo said, in typically understated fashion: “Do I have any regrets at all about the test case? No, not now, because of the way it turned out.”

Mitsuye Endo, whose job with the State of California was never reinstated, chose not to return to California after her release and died in her adopted home town of Chicago in 2006.

Guard Tower at Tule Lake, 2016
Courtesy Alison Moore


Learn about CHS’s Collection of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California Records.

Alison Moore
Guest writer
This post was originally published on April 27, 2017 and has since been updated