Martial Law in Hawaii.

The question of the constitutional status of martial law was raised again in World War II by the proclamation of Governor Poindexter of Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, suspending the writ of habeas corpus and conferring on the local commanding General of the Army all his own powers as governor and also “all of the powers normally exercised by the judicial officers . . . of this territory . . . during the present emergency and until the danger of invasion is removed.” Two days later the Governor’s action was approved by President Roosevelt. The regime which the proclamation set up continued with certain abatements until October 24, 1944.

By section 67 of the Organic Act of April 30, 1900,235 the Territorial Governor was authorized “in case of rebellion or invasion, or imminent danger thereof, when the public safety requires it, [to] suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, or place the Territory, or any part thereof, under martial law until communication can be had with the President and his decision thereon made known.” By section 5 of the Organic Act, “the Constitution . . . shall have the same force and effect within the said Territory as elsewhere in the United States.” In a brace of cases which reached it in February 1945, but which it contrived to postpone deciding till February 1946,236 the Court, speaking by Justice Black, held that the term “martial law” as employed in the Organic Act, “while intended to authorize the military to act vigorously for the maintenance of an orderly civil government and for the defense of the Islands against actual or threatened rebellion or invasion, was not intended to authorize the supplanting of courts by military tribunals.”237

The Court relied on the majority opinion in Ex parte Milligan. Chief Justice Stone concurred in the result. “I assume also,” he said, “that there could be circumstances in which the public safety requires, and the Constitution permits, substitution of trials by military tribunals for trials in the civil courts,”238 but added that the military authorities themselves had failed to show justifying facts in this instance. Justice Burton, speaking for himself and Justice Frankfurter, dissented. He stressed the importance of Hawaii as a military outpost and its constant exposure to the danger of fresh invasion. He warned that “courts must guard themselves with special care against judging past military action too closely by the inapplicable standards of judicial, or even military, hindsight.”239

Footnotes

235
31 Stat. 141, 153 (1900). [Back to text]
236
Duncan v. Kahanamoku, 327 U.S. 304 (1946). [Back to text]
237
327 U.S. at 324. [Back to text]
238
327 U.S. at 336. [Back to text]
239
327 U.S. at 343. [Back to text]