SAN FRANCISCO — A Chinese immigrant denied a California law license in 1890 because of his race will receive one posthumously, the California Supreme Court decided unanimously Monday.
An Asian student law association at the University of California at Davis asked the state’s highest court to “right this historic wrong” by admitting Hong Yen Chang to the California bar.
The court in 1890 found Chang qualified to practice law, but refused him admission because a federal law at that time barred “persons of the Mongolian race” from citizenship. At the time, only citizens or people eligible for citizenship could receive a California law license.
“More than a century later, the legal and policy underpinnings of our 1890 decision have been discredited,” the court said.
“Even if we cannot undo history,” the ruling said, “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 people and the courts of California were denied Chang’s services as a lawyer,” said the unsigned ruling. “But we need not be denied his example as a pioneer for a more inclusive legal profession. In granting Hong Yen Chang posthumous admission to the California Bar, we affirm his rightful place among the ranks of persons deemed qualified to serve as an attorney and counselor at law in the courts of California.”
Today, the California Supreme Court has three Asian American justices, one Latino, one African-America and two white women. Only last year, the state bar gave a law license to a Mexican immigrant without a green card.
The law school’s Asian Pacific American Law Students Association filed the motion to have Chang admitted. Although posthumous admissions are rare, courts in other states have permitted them.
Chang got his law degree from Columbia University and obtained a law license in New York and moved to San Francisco. After the California Supreme Court barred him from practicing law, Chang had a successful diplomatic and financial career.