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Oyama v. California

Oyama v. California
Argued October 22, 1947
Decided January 19, 1948
Full case name Fred Oyama, et al. v. California
Citations 332 U.S. 633 (more)
68 S. Ct. 269; 92 L. Ed. 249; 1948 U.S. LEXIS 2773
Prior history Judgment for the State, San Diego County Superior Court; affirmed, 173 P.2d 794 (Cal. 1946); rehearing denied, Cal. November 25, 1946; cert. granted, 330 U.S. 818 (1947)
The application of the California Alien Land Law to a minor citizen whose Japanese father purchased land in his name violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because the burden that the minor prove his father did not act with an intent to evade alien land ownership prohibitions discriminated against his right to own property based on the national origin of his father. California Supreme Court reversed.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Vinson, joined by Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, Murphy, Rutledge
Concurrence Black, joined by Douglas
Concurrence Murphy, joined by Rutledge
Dissent Reed, joined by Burton
Dissent Jackson
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV; California Alien Land Law of 1913, 1920

Oyama v. State of California, 332 U.S. 633 (1948), was a case in which the United States Supreme Court decided that specific provisions of the 1913 and 1920 California Alien Land Laws abridged the rights and privileges guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to Fred Oyama, a citizen of the United States in whose name his father, who held Japanese citizenship, had purchased land. In doing so, however, the court did not overturn the California Alien Land Laws as unconstitutional.


  • Background of the case 1
    • California Alien Land Laws 1.1
    • Oyama's land purchase and internment 1.2
    • State court proceedings 1.3
  • The court's decision 2
    • Vinson's majority opinion 2.1
    • Black's concurrence 2.2
    • Murphy's concurrence 2.3
    • Reed's dissent 2.4
    • Jackson's dissent 2.5
  • Subsequent jurisprudence 3
  • See also 4
  • External links 5
  • Notes 6

Background of the case

California Alien Land Laws

The case of Oyama v. California developed from the 1913 and 1920 Alien Land Laws passed in California. In accordance with these laws, persons ineligible to become citizens of the United States were prohibited from owning land. Under the relevant federal and state statutes of the time, "ineligible persons" included everyone save for whites and persons of African descent. California was not alone in passing restrictive land laws – Washington state, for example, had such a statute as early as 1886. Such land control laws have been used in 19th century United States, and can in fact be traced back to English common law.

The California Alien Land Law of 1913 did not employ any specific language targeting Japanese residents in America; nonetheless, they were the primary target. This was in part to appease the nervous California farmers who feared that the Japanese immigrants’ agricultural techniques (which developed out of the necessity to make as much use of small plots of land as possible) would render them unable to compete economically. The implicit intent of the law was not lost on the Japanese; many American Japanese residents and even the Japanese government voiced their opposition.

Japanese residents living in America sought various ways to circumvent the alien land laws. A commonly used way to get around it was to purchase land in the name of their US-born children (who, by birth, were automatically granted American citizenship), and then become the guardian of the property. This enabled Japanese parents to effectively become de facto (if not de jure) managers and owners of land.

In response to these tactics, the 1920 version of the California Alien Land Law included more stringent rules designed to put a stop to such circumvention. Among other changes, it introduced a provision that would prove to be crucial in the Oyama case – namely, it stated that if a person purchased land in another person’s name, it would be presumed that this was done with intent to bypass the Alien Land Law. This was a significant shift in the rules regarding burden of proof in state escheat cases involving land. Whereas before the State would have to prove its case, this was no longer the situation – it was now incumbent upon the defendant to prove that the purchased land was a bona fide gift rather than an attempt at getting around the land ownership restrictions.

Another, even more stringent provision introduced in the 1920 law prohibited assigning persons ineligible for naturalization as guardians of estate. The California Supreme Court, however, invalidated this prohibition in the 1922 Yano case (Estate of Tetsubmi Yano, 188 Cal. 645).

Oyama's land purchase and internment

World War II tensions contributed significantly to the development of these issues, as anti-Japanese sentiments grew more heated and the internment of Japanese persons took place. California tightened its Alien Land Laws even further, and actively began pursuing escheat procedures. Kajiro Oyama, a Japanese citizen, was one of the individuals thus targeted.

In the case of Oyama, Kajiro Oyama, a Japanese citizen ineligible for naturalization, purchased six acres (24,000 m²) of land in 1934 in Chula Vista, California, in the old Rancho de la Nación land grant. He paid $4,000 for the land, and the seller executed a deed to Fred Oyama, Kajiro’s son (who was six years old at this time). Six months later, Kajiro petitioned the Superior Court of San Diego County to be appointed Fred’s guardian, stating that Fred owned the six acres (24,000 m²). The court permitted this. The land parcel was expanded by an adjoining two acres (8,000 m²) in 1937.

Despite a requirement pursuant to Alien Land Law for all guardians of agricultural land belonging to minor children of ineligible aliens, Kajiro Oyama did not do so until the date of the trial.

In 1942, Fred and his family were displaced along with all other Japanese persons in the area. In 1944, the State of California filed a petition to declare an escheat of the eight acres (32,000 m²) of land on the ground that the purchases made in 1934 and 1937 had been made with intent to violate and evade the Alien Land Law.

State court proceedings

The trial court found that Kajiro Oyama, the father, had enjoyed the beneficial use of the land, and that the 1934 and 1937 land transfers were subterfuges done with intent to avoid escheat procedure. The court ruled in favor of the state, stating that pursuant to the Alien Land Law, the parcels had vested in the state as of the date of illicit transfers in 1934 and 1937.

The Supreme Court of California upheld the trial court’s finding as justified by the evidence. It further ruled that California was permitted to exclude ineligible aliens from purchasing, transferring, and owning agricultural land, and that Fred Oyama was deprived of no constitutional guarantees.

The court's decision

After the case was decided in a trial court and was appealed to and upheld by the California Supreme Court, it went to the United States Supreme Court via a writ of certiorari. Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State under President Harry S. Truman, presented the case for petitioners.

The petitioners of the case listed three grievances of the Alien Land Law as it was applied in this case:

  • First, that it deprived Fred Oyama of the equal protection of the laws and of his privileges as an American citizen;
  • Secondly, that it denied Kajiro Oyama equal protection of the laws;
  • Thirdly, it contravened the due process clause by sanctioning a taking of property after expiration of the appropriate limitations period.

The Court agreed by a vote of 8 to 1 with the petitioners’ first contention – that is, that the Alien Land Law, as applied in this case, did indeed deprive Fred Oyama of the equal protection of California’s laws and of his privileges as an American citizen. Because this decision alone was grounds for reversal of the California Supreme Court decision, the Court saw no need to address the second and third contentions.

Vinson's majority opinion

Oyama is notable for the significant differences in rendered concurrent opinions. Chief Justice Vinson, delivering the opinion of the Court, writes strictly on the facts of the case without giving much note to its broader implications. While freely admitting that it is apparent that the enforcement of the Alien Land Laws in this case resulted in abridgement of equal protection afforded to Fred Oyama by his status as an American citizen, the Court’s opinion rendered by Vinson does not go so far as to rule on – or, in fact, even address – the constitutionality of the statute.

First, Chief Justice Vinson was fairly conservative in issues of race. As the famous story goes, Associate Justice Frankfurter remarked that Chief Justice Vinson’s death in 1953 (that is, in the middle of the Brown v. Board of Education case) was perhaps the only evidence of the existence of God he has ever witnessed. While there are of course no certainties in law, the general consensus remains that if Vinson had not been replaced by Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1953, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case would have been decided differently. Earl Warren’s convictions and activism prompted President Eisenhower to remark that his appointment was “the biggest damn fool mistake I ever made.”

The second reason has to do with precedent. In the 1920s, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality and validity of several land laws. Invalidating the California Alien Land Law would have required overturning these decisions – something that the Court is typically loath to do, especially so shortly thereafter the decision dates. In this case, the Court was able to address the unfairness of the application of the law by focusing on the petitioners’ first contention, and effectively ignore the broader implications.

Black's concurrence

Associate Justice Hugo Black writes a brief yet notable opinion (with Justice William Douglas joining) in which he notes that while he concurs with the Court’s judgment and opinion, he would prefer to reverse the previous judgment on broader grounds. In his view, the “basic provisions of the California Alien Land Law violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and conflict with federal laws and treaties governing the immigration of aliens and their rights after arrival in this country.”

He notes further that though the statute does not specifically refer to Japanese residents, and though its terms also apply to a small number of aliens from other countries, the effect of the law is to discriminate against Japanese. Justice Black states that if there is only one purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment of which there can be no doubt whatsoever, it is that it was designed to prevent states from denying some groups – because of their race or color – any right, privileges, and opportunities enjoyed by other groups. Disagreeing with Chief Justice Vinson, Justice Black says specifically that he “would now overrule the previous decisions of this Court that sustained state land laws which discriminate against people of Japanese origin residing in this country.”

Murphy's concurrence

Associate Justice Frank Murphy, with whom Justice Rutledge concurs, delivers the most impassionate opinion. He opens it by asking whether the California Alien Land Law is consistent with the Constitution of the United States, whether a state can prohibit aliens from acquiring land, and whether such prohibition is permitted by the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Murphy answers that the “negative answer to those queries is dictated by the uncompromising opposition of the Constitution to racism, whatever cloak or disguise it may assume.” He calls the California Alien Land Law “nothing more than an outright racial discrimination. As such, it deserves constitutional condemnation.”

Reed's dissent

Associate Justice Reed, joined by Associate Justice Burton, dissented from the Court’s decision. Justice Reed states that he disagrees with the Court’s opinion that the Alien Land Laws of California discriminate against Fred Oyama, an American citizen.

Jackson's dissent

Associate Justice Jackson writes in his dissenting opinion that since the Court upheld the Alien Land Law, it could not logically set aside the judgment that resulted from its valid enforcement. He noted further that since it was accepted that California was permitted to forbid certain aliens from owning land, it should also be accepted that the state was empowered to modify its laws in order to preclude individuals from circumventing the relevant statutes.

Subsequent jurisprudence

Although the Oyama case did not strike down the 1913 and 1920 California Alien Land Laws, it nonetheless proved to be an important precedent. In part relying on the Oyama decision, the California Supreme Court found the Alien Land Laws unconstitutional in Sei Fujii v. California, 38 Cal.2d 718, 242 P.2d 617 (1952), and California finally repealed them in 1956.

See also

External links

  • Full text of the decision and opinions at
  • “On California’s 1920 Alien Land Law: The Psychology and Economics of Racial Discrimination”
  • , 87 Washington University Law Review 979 (2010).At the Intersection of Property, Race and Citizenship Oyama v. California: RediscoveringRose Cuison Villazor,


  • ^1 See, for example, Laurence H. Tribe, God Save This Honorable Court: How the Choice of Supreme Court Justices Shapes our History (1985), pp. 37–38: "...most observers believe that Chief Justice Fred Vinson was ambivalent about the constitutionality of school segregation, and uncertain about what position he would take after hearing arguments in a series of cases in 1953."
  • ^2 The "federal laws and treaties" that Associate Justice Hugo Black cites in his opinion refer primarily to the Japanese-American Treaty of 1911, which authorized Japanese in this country to lease and occupy land for residential and commercial purposes. However, because the treaty made no mention of agricultural land, the California Alien Land Law - which regulated only agricultural land - did not ostensibly present an obvious conflict.
  • ^3 There have been several cases before the Supreme Court in which a seemingly non-discriminatory statute was alleged to have been enforced in a discriminatory manner. One of the earliest, and more famous examples of such a case is Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886). In its decision, the Court ruled unanimously that the regulation in question was used primarily to target Chinese laundry owners while excluding non-Chinese laundry operators, and as such, was wholly inconsistent with the protections afforded to all residents by the Fourteenth Amendment.
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