State high court grants posthumous law license to Chinese-born lawyer who was rejected in 1890

After denying a Chinese-born lawyer a law license 125 years ago, the California Supreme Court on March 16 reversed itself and posthumously admitted him to the State Bar.

The seven-member court, in a ruling issued in San Francisco, unanimously granted Hong Yen Chang his law license to correct what the court called “a grievous wrong.”

“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 said.

Chang was born in southern China in about 1860 and died in Berkeley in 1926. He came to the United States at the age of 13 under a program to educate Chinese youth about the West.

Several years after graduating from the law school of Columbia University in New York in 1886, he moved to San Francisco and sought admission to the State Bar in order to practice law.

But the state high court denied him a license in a two-page ruling in 1890.

The reason, the court said then, was a combination of the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred the naturalization of people from China, and a California law that prohibited giving professional licenses to people who were not eligible to become citizens.

In the March 16 decision, the justices said the anti-Chinese sentiment in the two laws illustrates “a sordid chapter in our state and national history.”

“More than a century later, the legal and policy underpinnings of our 1890 decision have been discredited,” the panel said in a “by the court” ruling that did not indicate an individual author of the decision.

After being denied the right to practice law, Chang had a successful career as a diplomat and banker, according to the court.

Chang’s admission to the bar was requested in December by the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association of the University of California at Davis.

The group said the action would “both acknowledge the long history of discrimination against Asian Americans in our state and celebrate our modern legal profession’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

No one opposed the motion, and the court issued the ruling without holding a hearing on the case.

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