Johnson v. Eisentrager

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Johnson v. Eisentrager is a 1950 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, which held there is no right of habeas corpus, or immunity from military prosecution, from non-citizens whose country was at war with the United States and were captured by U.S. military forces. [1] The case has been of recent interest, the U.S. government argued, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that non-citizens, captured on a battlefield, have no access to U.S. courts. In that case, the Court decided that specific circumstances involved in Johnson did not apply to Hamdan, especially the existence of a declared war, and Hamdan did have certain access.

The petitioners were German citizens who had been tried, and convicted, in China, for fighting the United States after the German surrender. Once convicted, they were imprisoned in the U.S.-occupied zone of Germany, and never were within the jurisdiction of a U.S. civil court.


"A nonresident enemy alien has no access to our courts in wartime." U.S. law does not remove the inherent distinctions, in customary international law, among citizens and aliens, among aliens of friendly and enemy allegiance, and among between resident enemy aliens who have submitted themselves to our laws and nonresident enemy aliens who at all times have remained with, and adhered to, enemy governments.

Factor Johnson v. Eisentrager In re Quirin In re Yamashita
Citizenship Nationals of a country at war with the U.S. Mixture of German and U.S. citizens National of a state previously at war
Capture Captured outside U.S. territory and held in military custody Captured, out of uniform, on U.S. soil Captured in U.S. possession under military law; recognized prisoner of war
Judgment Tried and convicted by military
Acts Committed outside U.S. against troops Planned and were equipped for sabotage in U.S. Committed outside U.S. against troops and civilians
Custody In disputed territory (postwar and occupation) In the continental U.S. during wartime In U.S. territory (postwar)

Rights of resident aliens

When aliens resident in the U.S. receive constitutional protections, it was their presence within the U.S. that gave authority to the civil courts. Nevertheless, "executive power over enemy aliens, undelayed and unhampered by litigation, has been deemed, throughout our history, essential to wartime security."

"A resident enemy alien is constitutionally subject to summary arrest, internment and deportation whenever a 'declared war' exists." Adjudicating a plea for freedom first depends on determining the if a state of war exists and if petitioner is an alien enemy. When those conditions exist, the petitioner has no further right of access.

Status of nonresident aliens

Especially when captured while in active enemy service, according to the precedents of Ex parte Quirin,In re Yamashita, nonresident aliens have no right to habeas corpus in U.S. courts. While the Fifth Amendment refers to "any person", that does not "extend its protection to alien enemies everywhere in the world engaged in hostilities against us. Accepting the argument would prevent any prosecution for actions against U.S. military forces. There is no "right of personal security or an immunity from military trial and punishment upon an alien enemy engaged in the hostile service of a government at war with the United States"

The Judiciary and War

"It is not the function of the Judiciary to entertain private litigation - even by a citizen - which challenges the legality, wisdom or propriety of the Commander-in-Chief in sending our armed forces abroad or to any particular region."


  1. Johnson, Secretary of Defense, et al. v. Eisentrager, alias Ehrhardt, et al.',  339 U.S. Robert Jackson (Supreme Court of the United States June 5, 1950), 763