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California Supreme Court grants UC Davis School of Law petition, admits Chinese lawyer posthumously

By Karen Nikos-Rose on March 16, 2015 in

More than a century after Hong Yen Chang was denied a license to practice law in California on the basis of laws that discriminated against Chinese immigrants, the Supreme Court of California has granted him posthumous admission to the bar, thanks to the efforts of UC Davis School of Law students.

Students in the law school's Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, or APALSA, petitioned the court last year on behalf of Chang, pointing out that the laws that prevented him from practicing as an attorney have been discredited and repealed and asking the court to "right this historic wrong."

In a March 16 opinion that includes "a candid reckoning with a sordid chapter of our state and national history," the court granted Chang posthumous admission as an attorney and counselor in all California courts.

"This is a historic moment for all Chinese Americans in California because a terrible wrong has been righted today by the California Supreme Court," said Rachelle Chong, a California lawyer and a grandniece of Hong Yen Chang. 

Chang first came to the United States and attended Yale as part of the Chinese Educational Mission, a pioneering program initiated by the Chinese government, and later returned on his own to study law. He earned a degree from Columbia Law School in 1886 and 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 came to California with the intention of serving San Francisco's Chinese community as an attorney.

At that time, the federal Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese immigrants from naturalizing as citizens, and a California law prohibited noncitizens from practicing law in the state. Taken together, these laws made it impossible for people of Chinese descent to earn law licenses in the state. Chang petitioned the California Supreme Court, but in In re Hong Yen Chang, he was denied admission to the bar.

Last year, with support from the UC Davis School of Law Supreme Court Clinic, the private firm Munger, Tolles & Olson, and UC Davis Law Professor Gabriel "Jack" Chin, APALSA's faculty adviser, the students petitioned the State Bar of California and California Supreme Court on Chang's behalf. Their success delighted Chang's descendants, many of whom still live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

"Sadly, the xenophobic attitude of the times caused the Supreme Court to deny my qualified great uncle Hong Yen Chang the right to practice law in California," said Chong. "Our family is thrilled that this clearly racist decision of In re Hong Yen Chang is reversed. On behalf of the descendants of Hong Yen Chang, we thank the California Supreme Court for removing this case off the books. We are also extremely grateful to the UC Davis APALSA and Professor Jack Chin for their dedication to righting this historic wrong done to our great uncle."

"Among legal scholars, the 1890 decision was a notorious symbol of the racism of the era," said Chin. "The laws of California and the United States were intended to rid the country of Chinese and other Asians. It is particularly poignant that this historic decision comes from what is perhaps the most diverse state Supreme Court in the country, at the request of the UC Davis APALSA, future lawyers many of whom would have been barred under the 1890 decision."

Media contact(s)

Karen Nikos-Rose, Research news (emphasis: arts, humanities and social sciences), 530-219-5472, kmnikos@ucdavis.edu

Pamela Wu, School of Law, 530-754-7173, pcwu@ucdavis.edu

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