Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, March 17, 2015


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S.C. Posthumously Admits Chinese-Born Legal Pioneer to State Bar

Justices Act to Right ‘Grievous Wrong’ Done by Their Predecessors 125 Years Ago




The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously granted posthumous admission to the State Bar to a native of China who was denied that privilege in 1890 solely because of his race and national origin.

“Even if we cannot undo history, we can acknowledge it and, in so doing, accord a full measure of recognition to [Hong Yen] Chang’s pathbreaking efforts to become the first lawyer of Chinese descent in the United States,” the justices said in a per curiam opinion.

“The people and the courts of California were denied Chang’s services as a lawyer,” the court continued. “But we need not be denied his example as a pioneer for a more inclusive legal profession.  In granting Hong Yen Chang posthumous admission to the California Bar, we affirm his rightful place among the ranks of persons deemed qualified to serve as an attorney and counselor at law in the courts of California.”

Law Students’ Motion

Chang, who died in 1926—at a time when federal law still banned natives of China from becoming citizens and California law still banned non-citizens from practicing as attorneys—was admitted on the motion of the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association at UC Davis. Among those advocating for his admission was his grand-niece, Rachelle Chong, who served on both the California Public Utilities Commission and the Federal Communications Commission.

Chang, the opinion recited, came to the United States in 1872 “as part of an educational program to teach Chinese youth about the West.” He ultimately graduated from Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, and from Yale University and Columbia Law School.

His first application for admission to practice in New York was turned down on the ground he was not a citizen, but he obtained a certificate of naturalization in 1887 and was admitted the following year.

Relocating to San Francisco in order to serve its large Chinese immigrant population, he became “the only regularly admitted Chinese lawyer in this country,” the New York Times reported at the time.

‘Mongolian Nativity’

In denying his request for admission in California, however, the state high court held that his naturalization certificate was invalid because he was of “Mongolian nativity” and thus barred from citizenship by the Chinese Exclusion Act. (That law was repealed in 1943.)

The court said that while his moral character was “duly vouched for,” he was not, and could not become, a citizen of the United States and thus could not be admitted to practice under a statute which remained in effect until struck down in 1972 by the state Supreme Court.

In yesterday’s opinion, the court noted that anti-Chinese sentiment was strong in California in the era when Chang came here, driven by hostility toward Chinese jobseekers coming here in the aftermath of the Gold Rush, “together with cultural tensions and xenophobia.” State laws banned “aliens incapable of becoming electors” from commercial fishing, imposed criminal liability on corporations that employed Chinese workers, and imposed special taxes on those “ineligible to become a citizen.”

Sinophobic Era

The Constitutional Convention of 1879, the court noted, enacted a number of anti-Chinese provisions, including one prohibiting corporations and the government from hiring “any Chinese or Mongolian,” provisions that remained in the Constitution until repealed by initiative in 1952.

This was followed by the 1880 legislative session, described by author and UC Berkeley School of Law lecturer Charles McClain as “the most Sinophobic in the state’s history,” banning “any alien not eligible to become an elector” from obtaining any type of state or local business or occupational license.

Over time, the court said yesterday, the legal underpinnings of Chang’s exclusion from the profession “have been discredited,” making it “past time to acknowledge that discriminatory exclusion of Chang from the State Bar of California was a grievous wrong.”

The case is In re Chang on Admission, 15 S.O.S. 1439.


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