California Law Students Seek Redemption for an Asian Lawyer

By Julissa Catalan

University of California, Davis law students have petitioned the state barand, soon, the Supreme Courtto credit an Asian lawyer who was initially denied a license in 1890 with posthumous admission to the California State Bar.

Over a century ago, the state of California denied Hong Yen Chang the right to take the bar test because of the Chinese Exclusion Acta law that prohibited Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens. At the time, a California law also prohibited noncitizens from practicing in the state. The combination of the two made it impossible for Chang to become licensed.

Chang began his law career by attending Yale University through the Chinese Educational Mission, a revolutionary program that was initiated by the Chinese government. He went on to earn a degree from Columbia Law School in 1886 and sat for the New York bar exam by special act of the legislature. The New York Times reported that Chang made history by becoming the first Chinese immigrant admitted to any bar in the United States.

Though Chang was already an accredited lawyer in New York by 1890, his hope was to serve as a lawyer to the large Chinese community of San Francisco.

He went on to focus on a career in banking and diplomacy.

Students belonging to the UC Davis School of Law’s Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA) are behind this petition. They say his admission would “send a powerful message about the legal profession’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

“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 APALSA’s faculty advisor on the project. “At the time Chang was excluded from the practice of law in California, discrimination against Chinese persons was widespread. Congress prohibited all Chinese immigration. Even the California Constitution dedicated an entire article to restricting the rights of Chinese residents.”

Representing APALSA is the UC Davis School of Law California Supreme Court Clinic. The clinic is the only one of its kind and centers on pending civil and criminal cases before the California Supreme Court.

“This is a unique situation and we don’t know what the Committee of Bar Examiners will do with the application,” said spokeswoman Laura Ernde. The petition is scheduled for review in late June.

Chang’s posthumous admittance would not be without precedence. In 2001, the Washington Supreme Court granted admission to the state bar to Takuji Yamashita, a Japanese immigrant who was originally denied admission in 1902. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court did the same in 2010 for George B. Vashon, a Black man who was denied admission to that state’s bar in 1847.

Rachelle ChongChang’s grandniece and a San Francisco resident who is the first Asian-American to serve as a Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission and of the California Public Utilities Commissionsigned and commented on the petition.

“In my generation, our family is extremely fortunate to have three lawyers admitted to the California State Bar: my cousins Suzanne AhTye, Kirk Ah Tye and myself,” said Chong.”It would be fitting and right to have my granduncle’s exclusion reversed by the California Supreme Court to ensure that justice, albeit late, is done. Our family is honored that the UC Davis APALSA students have taken up the issue of righting a terrible wrong.”

At the time this article was published, the petition had 2,798 signatures.

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