American Portraits

Justice Frank Murphy and Racial Prejudice: No Justifiable Part

In this lesson, students will learn about Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy and his stand for justice in three World War II cases related to restrictions on Japanese Americans.

Founding Principles

Due Process image

Due Process

The government must interact with all citizens according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all citizens.

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Equal Protection

The principle of equal justice under law means that every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law. There are no individuals or groups who are born with the right to rule over others.

Rule of Law image

Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.

Separation of Powers image

Separation of Powers

A system of distinct powers built into the Constitution to prevent an accumulation of power in one branch.


Before Franklin Roosevelt appointed him Attorney General of the United States in 1939, Frank Murphy had served in many positions of leadership. The young lawyer from Michigan had served in the U.S. Army during World War I, opened a private law practice, and had been Assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. He taught law at the University of Detroit, served as a trial judge, was elected Mayor of Detroit, supervised U.S. administration of the Philippines, and was elected Governor of Michigan. In each of these positions, Murphy established systems intended to help the poor, the unemployed, and minorities. As Attorney General of the United States, he implemented a Civil Liberties Section in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, whose responsibility was to enforce the Bill of Rights and civil rights law. He said, “Maintenance of civil liberties…is one of the “bulwarks of democracy.” He sought to enforce the law, champion individual rights for the downtrodden, and fight against intolerance. In 1940, Roosevelt nominated Murphy to the U.S. Supreme Court to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Pierce Butler. Murphy served on the Court until his death in 1949….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can you promote justice for yourself and others?

Virtue Defined

Justice is the capacity to determine and preserve our common rights.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy and his stand for justice in three World War II cases related to restrictions on Japanese Americans.


  • Students will examine Justice Frank Murphy’s pursuit of justice for Japanese Americans.
  • Students will determine ways that they can promote justice in their actions.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of justice to their own lives.


Should the text of the Constitution be interpreted one way in peacetime and another way in wartime, as suggested by a unanimous Court in 1919 in the Schenck v. United States case? After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II, and once again faced the challenge of applying the Constitution’s guarantees in the context of wartime. Based on advice from the military that there was a real threat of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast, as well as a credible danger of Japanese espionage, the U.S. government ordered various restrictions on Japanese-Americans.


  • Credible
  • Unanimous
  • Espionage
  • Attorney General
  • Civil liberties
  • Bulwark
  • Downtrodden
  • Incarcerate
  • Curfew
  • Prosecuted
  • Convicted
  • Statute
  • Dissent
  • Mandate
  • Executive Order
  • Abyss
  • Insinuation
  • Habeas corpus
  • Stenographer

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was Justice Frank Murphy’s role concerning Supreme Court cases involving Japanese-Americans? How was Murphy’s effort important?
  • What was Justice Murphy’s purpose in deciding these cases?
  • Why did Murphy think it was important to challenge the prevailing sentiment that restricted rights of Americans of Japanese ancestry?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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