Denied Chinese lawyer Hong Yeng Chang may get justice, 124 years on

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 May, 2014, 12:24am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 May, 2014, 2:43am


California's Supreme Court in 1890 denied Hong Yeng Chang's application to practise law solely because he was Chinese - a decision still studied in law schools as a 19th century lesson in bigotry.

Now, students at a Northern California law school are working to right that ancient wrong. They hope to persuade the current court to reverse its 124-year-old decision.

Students at the University of California, Davis, School of Law's Asian Pacific American Law Students Association and two professors have submitted an application to practise law to the State Bar of California on behalf of Chang. It is a first step before approaching the high court, which licenses California's attorneys.

The state bar vets all California applications and recommends approval or denial to the California Supreme Court. The Supreme Court usually follows the recommendation of the bar.

"This is a unique situation and we don't know what the Committee of Bar Examiners will do with the application," spokeswoman Laura Ernde said. The committee is scheduled to consider the application next month.

Approving Chang's application would correct a personal injustice and serve a broader public interest purpose, the students and professors wrote to the state bar.

"Admitting Mr Chang would be a powerful symbol of our state's repudiation of laws that singled out Chinese immigrants for discrimination," said Gabriel "Jack" Chin, a professor at UC Davis School of Law and the student association's adviser.

Chang studied at Yale University and Columbia Law School, graduating from Columbia in 1886. After initially being denied a chance to take New York's bar exam, a special act of the state legislature enabled him to sit for the test, which he passed. The New York Times reported at the time that Chang was the first Chinese immigrant to become an American lawyer.

In 1890, he moved to California with plans to practise law and represent the burgeoning Chinese population in San Francisco. But the California Supreme Court turned down Chang's application, citing the federal Chinese Exclusion Act - which barred Chinese natives from obtaining US citizenship - and a California law prohibiting noncitizens from practising law.

"It's a pretty notorious decision," Chin said.

Chin said Chang's case was well-known in legal circles interested in combatting discrimination. He also said the project was a good lesson for Asian Pacific American Law Students.

"Every student can put themselves in his position," Chin said.

He said granting Chang a posthumous license would be in line with lawmakers formally undoing the anti-Chinese and anti-Asian laws and apologising for the discrimination. Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943 and both chambers have recently apologised for it. The California Supreme Court in 1972 allowed noncitizens to become lawyers in the state.

Chang went on to have a distinguished career in banking and diplomacy.