Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peľa, 515 U.S. 200, 15 (1995)

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Opinion of the Court

States, 256 U. S. 377, 392 (1921) ("Reference is made to cases decided under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment . . . ; but clearly they are not in point. The Fifth Amendment has no equal protection clause"). When the Court first faced a Fifth Amendment equal protection challenge to a federal racial classification, it adopted a similar approach, with most unfortunate results. In Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U. S. 81 (1943), the Court considered a curfew applicable only to persons of Japanese ancestry. The Court observed—correctly—that "[d]istinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality," and that "racial discriminations are in most circumstances irrelevant and therefore prohibited." Id., at 100. But it also cited Detroit Bank for the proposition that the Fifth Amendment "restrains only such discriminatory legislation by Congress as amounts to a denial of due process," 320 U. S., at 100, and upheld the curfew because "circumstances within the knowledge of those charged with the responsibility for maintaining the national defense afforded a rational basis for the decision which they made." Id., at 102.

Eighteen months later, the Court again approved wartime measures directed at persons of Japanese ancestry. Korematsu v. United States, 323 U. S. 214 (1944), concerned an order that completely excluded such persons from particular areas. The Court did not address the view, expressed in cases like Hirabayashi and Detroit Bank, that the Federal Government's obligation to provide equal protection differs significantly from that of the States. Instead, it began by noting that "all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect . . . [and] courts must subject them to the most rigid scrutiny." 323 U. S., at 216. That promising dictum might be read to undermine the view that the Federal Government is under a lesser obligation to avoid injurious racial classifications

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