"A Candid Reckoning With a Sordid Chapter" of History
By Jeffrey L. Bleich and Aimee Feinberg*
Rarely in legal history does a court acknowledge and make amends for profound failures of the past. But in March the California Supreme Court did just that when it posthumously admitted to the California bar Hong Yen Chang, the first Chinese lawyer in America who, in 1890, was denied membership in the California bar on account of his race. The Court’s powerful opinion affirming Mr. Chang’s "rightful place among the ranks of persons deemed qualified to serve"1 as California lawyers corrected a historic injustice. Moreover, in an increasingly globalized legal community, it affirmed the essential wisdom of the U.S. Constitution’s requirement to extend bar membership to non-citizens. In doing so, the California Supreme Court unequivocally reaffirmed the principle that California courts should be a welcome forum to people from all over the world.
In re Hong Yen Chang (1890)
In 1872, Mr. Chang came from China to the United States at age 13 as part of a Chinese educational program.2 Mr. Chang attended elite American schools, and upon earning his law degree from Columbia Law School, became the first Chinese lawyer educated in the United States.3 When he first applied to the New York bar, that state’s Supreme Court denied his application on the ground that he was not a citizen.4 But a state court judge later issued him a naturalization certificate, and the New York State Legislature enacted a law permitting him to reapply, steps that cleared the way for him to earn admission to the New York bar and become the only regularly admitted Chinese lawyer in this country.5