California Supreme Court Posthumously Grants Law License to Chinese Immigrant

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March 18, 2015
Courtesy Wikimedia
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On March 16, 2015, a unanimous California Supreme Court posthumously granted a law licencse to Hong Yen Chang, a Chinese immigrant who unsuccessfully petitioned the state high court in 1890 for a licence to practice law.

The court in 1890 cited the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred virtually all immigration from China and denied Chinese immigrants naturalization rights, as well as anti-Chinese laws memorialized into the California constituion of 1879 as the basis for its denial.

Chang arrived in the United States in 1872 when he was 13 to study.  He eventually attended Yale and earned a degree from Columbia Law School in 1886. He sat for the New York bar exam by special act of the legislature. When he was admitted to the New York state bar, the New York Times reported that Chang was the first Chinese immigrant admitted to any bar in the United States.

In 1890, he moved to California to work in San Francisco's Chinese community as an attorney. At the time, discrimination against Chinese immigrants was rampant.  In 1879, California voters ratified a new state constitution that denied Chinese the right to vote, prohibited the employment of Chinese by corporations or on public works except in punishment for a crime, and authorized cities to require Chinese to live outside city limits or only in segregated neighborhoods.

Through a series of federal court cases, Chinese plaintiffs were able to invalidate most of the anti-Chinese provisions. But it took almost a century for the last of the 1879 anti-Chinese constitutional provisions to be removed from the books by a statewide ballot initiative.

In 2014, members of the UC Davis Law School's Asian Pacific American Law Students Association asked the Califonria Supreme Court to award Chang his law license, pointing out that the laws that prevented him from practicing as an attorney have been discredited and repealed and asking the court to right the historic wrong against Chang.

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