125 Years Late, Chinese Lawyer Earns Right to Practice Law in California

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By Denny Walsh, Sacramento Bee

Acknowledging a “sordid chapter” in state history, the California Supreme Court ruled last week that a Chinese immigrant denied the right to practice law in California 125 years ago because of his race should be licensed posthumously.

The unanimous ruling came in response to a petition filed in 2014 by the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association at UC Davis.

The petition asked the high court to “right this historic wrong” by ordering the late Hong Yen Chang admitted to the State Bar of California.

“More than a century later, the legal and policy underpinnings of our 1890 decision have been discredited,” said Monday’s unsigned court opinion. “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’s ruling further stated that California’s courts and people “were denied Chang’s services as a lawyer. But we need not be denied his example as a pioneer for a more inclusive legal profession.”

UC Davis law professor Gabriel “Jack” Chin, who acted as faculty adviser to the law students on the project, called Monday’s ruling gratifying.

“I had known about this matter for 20 years. In 2011, the students and I began working on it. Now, it is very gratifying to see such a wonderful, scholarly ruling from the Supreme Court.”

Chin called it “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.”

The court is made up of three Asian Americans, two white women, a Latino and a black.

“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 Chang, in a statement released by the UCD law school.

Chang came to the United States at age 13 in 1872, as part of a program to teach Chinese youths about the West. He graduated from Phillips Academy in Massachusetts in 1879 and attended undergraduate school at Yale University. He received a Columbia Law School degree in 1886.

Two years later, he was licensed by the New York bar, becoming “the only regularly admitted Chinese lawyer in this country,” according to a front-page story in The New York Times on May 18, 1888.

But Chang hit a wall when he relocated to California and sought admission to its bar. A state statue allowed only citizens or people who were eligible for citizenship to practice law.

The state high court denied Chang’s motion, holding that natives of China could not become citizens under the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The naturalization certificate that Chang had obtained in New York, it said, “was issued without authority of law, and is void, it being conceded that the holder of it is a person of Mongolian nativity.”

In this week’s opinion, the court noted that understanding the state’s original denial of his right to practice law “requires a candid reckoning with a sordid chapter of our state and national history.”

Chang returned to China in 1907 and carved out successful careers in foreign service and finance. He later returned to California and died in Berkeley in 1926.

At the time of his death, the Chinese Exclusion Act and California’s citizenship requirement for State Bar membership were still in effect.

Led by partner Jeffrey Bleich, the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP represented – without compensation – the UC Davis law students in their presentation to the Supreme Court.

The students argued that admitting Chang “would serve the public interest,” noting that the 1890 opinion bearing his name “closely associates Mr. Chang with this state’s and the nation’s history of discrimination against Asian Americans.”

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