The Vinson Court (1946–53)


Do enemy aliens have a right to seek relief in U.S. federal courts?

No, the Vinson Court ruled in Johnson v. Eisentrager (1950) that twenty-one German nationals who allegedly continued military action against the United States in China after Germany had surrendered in World War II did not have a right to seek access to U.S. federal courts. These enemy aliens were tried and convicted by a military commission. They sought to challenge their confinement in U.S. federal courts. The Court rejected their claim by a narrow 5–4 vote. Justice Robert Jackson, who wrote the Court’s majority opinion, noted that the aliens’ offense, their capture, their trial, and their punishment were all beyond the territorial jurisdiction of any court of the United States. He wrote that if these enemy aliens could obtain access to U.S. courts, then they could assert other protections in the Bill of Rights:

Such a construction would mean that during military occupation irreconcilable enemy elements, guerrilla fighters, and “were-wolves” could require the American Judiciary to assure them freedoms of speech, press, and assembly as in the First Amendment, right to bear arms as in the Second, security against “unreasonable” search and seizures as in the Fourth, as well as rights to jury trial as in the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.


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