125 years later, Chinese immigrant denied California law license gets one
Hong Yen Chang's case has lingered as a black mark in California legal history since the late 19th century, a Chinese immigrant's tale of being refused a law license simply because he was Chinese.
Nearly 125 years later, Chang could hardly have imagined how much has changed since anti-Chinese provisions in federal and California law denied the Columbia Law School graduate the right to be a practicing lawyer. His family tree of descendants is now filled with lawyers. A group of Asian-American law students has been fighting for his cause for the past few years. And the California Supreme Court -- which refused him a law license in the 19th century -- now has three Asian-American justices, two of them Chinese.
On Monday, March 16, 2015, calling Chang's plight a "sordid chapter" in state history, the state Supreme Court posthumously granted him a license to be a California lawyer. The decision came as a relief to Chang's descendants, who have worked alongside a UC-Davis law school group to rectify what has long been considered a byproduct of federal and state laws meant to discriminate against Chinese immigrants. "This case has always stuck in our craw," said Rachelle Chong, Chang's grandniece from San Francisco who was the first Asian-American to serve on the Federal Communications Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission. "It always bothered us this case was in the books."
At the time, a combination of federal laws barring Chinese nationals from legal recognition and California law refusing law licenses to noncitizens blocked Chang's path to a law license. The federal Chinese Exclusion Act, an 1882 law that remained on the books until the 1940s, is still regarded as perhaps the most hostile to any single minority group in U.S. history.
More than a century later, a California Supreme Court with two Chinese-American justices -- Goodwin Liu and Ming Chin -- has given Chang a different outcome.
"Even if we cannot undo history, we can acknowledge it and, in so doing, accord a full measure of recognition to Chang's pathbreaking efforts to become the first lawyer of Chinese descent in the United States," the state Supreme Court observed.
Chang, according to records provided by the UC-Davis law clinic, came to the U.S. to attend Yale under an educational program backed by the Chinese government. He later returned to the country to attend Columbia, and was able to get his law license in New York through a special act of that state's legislature.
But his law career stalled when he moved to California planning to provide legal services to the growing Chinese community. Instead, he wound up a successful banker and a diplomat, but died in Berkeley in 1925 without ever getting his California law license.
Last year, a group of UC-Davis law students and professors asked the state Supreme Court to overturn that decision long after Chang's death; both the State Bar and Legislature passed resolutions backing the effort. That resulted in Monday's ruling.
Gabriel "Jack" Chin, the UC-Davis law professor who led the effort, said the original 1890 state Supreme Court ruling denying Chang's law license has been "notorious among legal scholars," particularly Asian-Americans.
He enlisted a group of law students to work on getting Chang's posthumous law license after he arrived at the school in 2011. There is precedent for states to address such past discrimination in law licenses: Washington state in 2001 granted one posthumously to a Japanese immigrant denied in 1902, and Pennsylvania did the same for an African-American denied admission in 1847 because he was black.
"There's this ugly history, and we don't live in that world anymore," Chin said.
The California Supreme Court agreed.
"It is past time to acknowledge that the discriminatory exclusion of Chang from the State Bar of California was a grievous wrong," the court wrote.
Chong, one of four family members who've become California lawyers, told this newspaper the family is "thrilled" the state Supreme Court reversed its own 1890 ruling. She discovered the old Supreme Court ruling, along with a cousin working on a book about Chang, while in law school in the early 1990s.
Chang and his wife did not have children, so other descendants felt it was important to play a role once the law clinic took up the cause.
"We feel we were the only family left to try to clear up this historic wrong," she said.