The California Supreme Court righted what it called a “grievous wrong” on Monday, posthumously granting a law license to a Chinese immigrant whose application 125 years ago was denied solely because of his race.
In granting the license to Hong Yen Chang, the court recounted the “sordid chapter” in California history that saw the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century.
“It was also a blow to countless others who, like Chang, aspired to become a lawyer only to have their dream deferred on account of their race, alienage, or nationality,” the unanimous court decision reads. “It is past time to acknowledge that the discriminatory exclusion of Chang from the State Bar of California was a grievous wrong.”
Chang died in Berkeley in 1926 after a successful career in banking. He was never licensed as a lawyer in California.
Professors and students at the University of California, Davis School of Law took up Chang's cause in 2011 and with the help of a large law firm volunteering its time began the process of getting the Chinese immigrant his license.
The initial denial was an infamous ruling that law school students still study today, law professor and project leader Gabriel “Jack” Chin said.
“This is a fantastic result,” Chin said. “The world has changed dramatically since then.”
An all-white and male Supreme Court in 1890 refused to license Chang even though he had received a New York law license and was highly educated, earning degrees from Yale University and Columbia College.
Chang moved to California with a desire to provide legal counsel to the burgeoning Chinese population. But the state Supreme Court cited the federal Chinese Exclusion Act, which denied Chinese immigrants U.S. citizenship, and a California law prohibiting noncitizens from practicing law.
On Monday, the state high court led by a female Filipino-American chief justice with two Chinese-American colleagues noted that those two laws have long-since been repealed. It also cited recent rulings supporting the rights of immigrants, including the granting of a law license to a Mexican native who is living in the U.S. illegally.
The court also said that state lawmakers last year passed a resolution apologizing for the ill-treatment of Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s.
Chang's grand-niece Rachelle Chong said the injustice had been a sore spot among Chang's extended family for decades.
“We are absolutely thrilled with the ruling,” said Chong, a lawyer who was the first Asian-American appointed to the Federal Communications Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission. Chong and three other Chang descendants are lawyers.
“That's a really neat legacy,” Chong said.