On March 16, 2015, the California Supreme Court corrected an 1890 decision that denied Hong Yen Chang admission to the California State Bar because of his Chinese heritage. It took a team composed of Chang’s descendants and law students from the University of California, Davis School of Law to finally get the Court to admit Chang to the Bar. In a nine-page opinion the Court noted: “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.” In re Hong Yen Chang on Admission, California Supreme Court Case Number S223736 at 8.
Chang was born in China and moved to the U.S. in 1872 as part of a Chinese government-sponsored program to teach Chinese youth about Western culture. He attended schools on the East Coast—graduating from Phillips Academy, Yale University and Columbia Law School.
When Chang moved to California in 1890, he had already been admitted to the New York Bar two years earlier. In doing so, he became the country’s first Chinese-American attorney. Chang’s journey to gain admission in New York was not without difficulties, however. New York’s highest court first denied Chang admission because he was not a citizen, but later admitted him after a New York judge issued Chang a certificate of naturalization.
Yet, in spite of this fact, the California Supreme Court rejected Chang’s application because it did not consider Chang a citizen. It held that the certificate of naturalization issued in New York was void because the federal Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited courts from issuing certificates of naturalization to any native of China and it being conceded that Chang was a “person of Mongolian nativity.”
It would not be until March 26, 1923, when You Chung Hong was admitted to the Bar, that California would allow Chinese-Americans to practice law in this state.
“A candid reckoning with a sordid chapter of our state and national history.”
In overturning the 1890 decision, the California Supreme Court recounted California’s sad but pivotal role in persuading Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act and how racism against Chinese immigrants formed the foundation for the California Constitutional Convention of 1879. The 1879 Constitution denied those with Chinese ancestry the right to vote along with any “idiot, insane person, or person convicted” of various crimes and directed the Legislature to discourage Chinese “immigration by all means within its power.
Given this historical background, the Court concluded that “the discriminatory exclusion of Chang from the State Bar of California was a grievous wrong” and that Chang had been denied the equal protection of the laws. Id. at 8.
Although Chang was unable to practice law in California and serve the Chinese community in San Francisco as he originally planned, he had a successful career in banking, academics and diplomacy. Nonetheless, Chang’s posthumous admission is bittersweet when considering the contributions he could have made to the legal community in California had he been afforded the privileges he had duly earned.
Michael Chung, Of Counsel, Willenken Wilson Loh & Delgado LLP
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