Tuesday, March 17, 2015

California Supreme Court grants posthumous law license to Hong Yen Chang

[Edited]

“A descendant of the wife of Hong Yen Chang was researching a book about an ancestor when she learned that her great-grand-uncle Chang had received a law degree but never practiced in California. She contacted another relative, who spoke to a historian at the State Bar of California. The California Supreme Court had denied Chang a law license because he was Chinese.

‘The family was troubled that it happened, but we didn't ever imagine there was anything we could do about it,’ said Rachelle Chong, a prominent lawyer and Chang’s great-grand-niece. Twenty five years later, she received a note from a UC Davis law professor. His students were going to try to overturn the decision that denied Chang admission to the California bar.

That reversal finally came Monday, when the California Supreme Court closed a chapter in the state’s history of anti-Chinese laws and decided unanimously to give Chang a posthumous law license. In a nine-page ruling, the state’s highest court repudiated its 1890 decision denying Chang a license because ‘persons of the Mongolian race’ were not entitled to citizenship. ‘More than a century later, the legal and policy underpinnings of our 1890 decision have been discredited,’ the court said in Monday’s unsigned decision. ‘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 project to award Chang a license posthumously began in 2011 with UC Davis law professor Gabriel Chin, who specializes in the law and race, immigration and criminal law. The 1890 California precedent has long been ‘notorious among Asian American legal scholars,’ Chin said. ‘It is a particularly bitter and shocking decision.’

Chin asked his students try to find a way to address that ignominious ruling. They researched the legal issues and the history and filed a petition with the state bar, which oversees lawyer licensing. The bar was sympathetic but did not have the authority to admit Chang posthumously.

The students bided their time.

When the California Supreme Court decided last year to give a law license to a Mexican immigrant who had no green card, the students’ confidence grew. They also were encouraged by the makeup of the top court. Three of the justices, including the chief justice, are Asian American. One is Latino, another is African American and two are white women. ‘I believed we had a really strong case,’ said Steven Vong, co-president of UC Davis Asian Pacific American Law Students Assn., which brought the case.

The law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson offered to represent the students for free. Jeffrey Bleich and two other San Francisco-based lawyers with the firm filed a motion with the court late last year. As a former president of the state bar, Bleich said he was particularly offended by the treatment of Chang. ‘I thought it was important to start addressing a stain on California’s judicial history and make amends to the Chinese people,’ he said.

The 1890 California ruling had denied Chang a law license under the federal Chinese Exclusion Act, which Congress passed at California’s urging and which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld. It barred citizenship for the ‘Mongolian race’ and imposed a 10-year ban on Chinese immigration.
Because citizenship or eligibility for citizenship was required for a California law license, Chang had to be excluded, the court said in its infamous ruling. ‘Courts are expressly forbidden to issue certificates of naturalization to any native of China,’ the court ruled.” [….]

The entire article from the Los Angeles Times is here. 

In an earlier post on this case from last year I discussed posthumous justice for apartheid-era lawyers in South Africa:

[....] Following the 1994 elections in South Africa, a “Restoration of Enrolment of Certain Legal Practitioners Bill” had been in the works, aimed at figures like Bram Fischer, Shun Chetty and Lewis Baker who were disbarred or struck off the roll of attorneys for various reasons that arose out of their activist political opposition to apartheid. On October 28, 2002, the Reinstatement of  Enrolment of Certain Deceased Legal Practitioners Act was passed into law by the Parliament and later signed by the President. The Bill reads as follows:
*   *   * To provide for the reinstatement of the enrolment of certain deceased legal practitioners who were struck off the roll of advocates or attorneys as a result of their opposition to the previous political dispensation of apartheid or their assistance to persons who were opposed to the said apartheid dispensation; and to provide for matters connected therewith. [....]

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