Oyama v. California, 332 U.S. 633; 68 S. Ct. 269; 92 L. Ed. 249 (1948)

Facts—The California Alien Land Law forbade aliens ineligible for citizenship to acquire, own, occupy, lease, or transfer agricultural land. The father, Kajiro Oyama, was a Japanese citizen ineligible for citizenship. He bought six acres of land in 1934, and the seller executed the deed to Fred Oyama, then six years old, and an American citizen. Some six months later, the father petitioned the court to be Fred’s guardian, which was ordered, and the father posted the necessary bond. In 1937, two adjoining acres were acquired. In 1942, Fred and his family were evacuated from the Pacific Coast. In 1944 when he was sixteen and still forbidden to return home, the state filed a petition to escheat the two parcels of land, contending that there was an intent to violate and evade the Alien Land Law.

Question—Does a statute making aliens ineligible to own land deprive Fred Oyama of equal protection of the laws and of his privileges as an American citizen?


ReasonsC.J. Vinson (6–3). The state of California had discriminated against Fred Oyama based solely on his parents’ country of origin. By the Fourteenth Amendment, and a federal statute, all states must accord to all citizens the right to take and hold real property. Under California law, infancy does not incapacitate a minor from holding real property. A minor citizen holding such property may have his father appointed his guardian, whether he be a citizen, an eligible alien, or an ineligible alien. At this point, the laws differ, pointing in one direction for minors whose parents cannot be naturalized, and in another direction for all other children.

Only the most exceptional circumstances can excuse such discrimination in the face of the equal protection clause and a federal statute giving all citizens the right to own land. In this case, the conflict was between a state’s right to form a policy of landholding within its boundaries, and the right of American citizens to own land anywhere in the United States. When these two rights clash, the country of the father’s origin may not be used as a pretense for subordinating the rights of the citizen.

J. Reed and J. Jackson authored dissents, arguing that Oyama’s actions were designed to evade a law, the constitutionality of which the Court still recognized.

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