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Law students push for posthumous license for Chinese attorney

By Paul Elias

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 12:15 p.m. HST, May 06, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO >> California's Supreme Court in 1890 denied Hong Yen Chang's application to practice 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 long-ago 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 practice 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 state 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 in late June.

Approving Chang's application would correct a personal injustice and serve a broader public interest purpose, the students and professors wrote 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 and pass. 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 practice 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 U.S. citizenship -- and a California law prohibiting noncitizens from practicing law.

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

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

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

Chin said there is no precedent in California for awarding a posthumous law license, but at least two other states have granted similar applications. In 2010, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court admitted George Vashon to the practice of law. The same court denied Vashon's application in 1847 because he was black. In 2001, the state of Washington Supreme Court admitted Takuji Yamashita after he was denied a license in 1902 because of his Japanese ancestry.

In addition, Chin said granting Chang a posthumous license would be in line with lawmakers formally undoing the anti-Chinese and anti-Asian laws and apologizing for the discrimination. Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943 and both chambers have recently apologized for the exclusion act and other discriminatory laws. 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.

Chin has made a career of working with law school students to redress past injustices. When he taught at the University of Cincinnati, for instance, he and his students discovered that Ohio was the only state not to ratify the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment, which gave blacks citizenship and allowed them to vote. Ohio lawmakers ratified the amendment in 2003.

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ryan02 wrote:
I hate racial discrimination as much as the next guy, but why not spend time and effort helping actual LIVE people instead? If Hong Yen Change was a good guy, that's probably what he would have wanted.
on May 6,2014 | 12:36PM
EducatedLocalBoy wrote:
ryan02 & loquaciousone, both of your logic is faulty. Under both of your rationale, we should stop criticizing KILL HA0LE DAY because it is no longer a practice and help out Micronesians because they are current targets of racial discrimination. Of course we should continue to undue past acts of racial discrimination even though it is symbolic. because it has an effect on present day life.
on May 6,2014 | 02:32PM
loquaciousone wrote:
Good idea. Now Hong Yen Chang can start his law career.
on May 6,2014 | 01:05PM
Denominator wrote:
I think they should give law licenses only posthumously.
on May 6,2014 | 01:24PM
Mythman wrote:
And Hawaii has the dubious distinction of being the only state that routinely blocks the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments with respect to the 1921 native Hawaiians of the native Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1921, a federal statute. To add to the irony, the very Chinese American lawyer the law school is named for, William (CJ) Richardson (CJ for Chief Justice) was responsible for this quirk. Odd.
on May 6,2014 | 01:27PM
EducatedLocalBoy wrote:
Mythman, you make no sense. The 13th Amendment only outlaws slavery. What does slavery have anything to do with the Hawaiian Homes Act? The vast majority of the 14th Amendment only prohibits Johnny Rebs, like Robert E.Lee and Jefferson Davis, from being elected to Congress or being part of the U.S. Army. The 15th Amendment only provides that former slaves shall not be deprived from the right to vote. Billy Richardson was only 3 yrs old when the Hawaiian Homes Act was passed. Billy Richardson's problem is not with the Hawaiian Homes Act, but rather is with lowering the test standards for becoming a lawyer so that the UH Law School grads could pass the test to become lawyers. Prior to his intervention, less than one half of the UH Law grads passed the test to become lawyers. Why do you think the powers that be named the UH Law School after him?
on May 6,2014 | 03:01PM
2NDC wrote:
Interesting case.....
on May 6,2014 | 05:58PM
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