The California Supreme court on Monday granted a posthumous law license to a Chinese immigrant who was barred from practicing law in the state 125 years ago because of his race.
Hong Yen Chang was denied a law license in 1890 because “persons of the Mongolian race” were not entitled to citizenship under the federal Chinese Exclusion Act.
“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 court said in its ruling on Monday.
Chang had come to the US in 1872 and earned his undergraduate at Yale in 1879, the LA Times reported. He graduated from Columbia Law School in 1886 and a year later, applied for a law license in New York but was rejected because he wasn’t a US citizen. A New York judge granted him naturalization and he was allowed to reapply.
The New York bar admitted Chang in 1888 and he became the first Chinese lawyer in the country. Chang then moved to California, which, following the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, was rife with anti-immigrant, anti-Chinese sentiment. There, the Supreme Court rejected his admission, saying that his naturalization was in violation of the Chinese Exclusion Act in place at the time.
Chang later retired in Berkley as a successful banker and diplomat.
In 2011, UC Davis Law professor Gabriel Chin and a group of students took on a project to repudiate the 1890 decision following a 1972 Supreme Court ruling that it was “constitutionally indefensible” to forbid non-citizens to practice law. The local law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson offered to represent the case for free and filed a motion with the California Supreme Court last year.
“It is past time to acknowledge that the discriminatory exclusion of Chang from the State Bar of California was a grievous wrong,” the court said in its unanimous ruling.
Rachelle Chong, Chang’s great-grandniece and a California lawyer herself, said her family was celebrating the victory.
“We are so excited, you have no idea,” she said.
[Image via LA Times]