A Legal Pioneer

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From a March 16 decision by the California Supreme Court to posthumously admit Hong Yen Chang 1886LAW to the California State Bar. The court had rejected Chang's application in 1890 under the federal Chinese Exclusion Act, whose passage California had lobbied for.

Understanding the significance of [this court’s 1890] two-­page decision denying Chang admission to the bar requires a candid reckoning with a sordid chapter of our state and national history ... Hostility toward Chinese labor, together with cultural tensions and xenophobia, prompted the California Legislature to enact a raft of laws designed to disadvantage Chinese immigrants. Many of the era’s discriminatory laws and government actions were upheld by this court. Anti­-Chinese sentiment was a major impetus for the California Constitutional Convention of 1879. As ratified by the electorate in 1879, the California Constitution denied the right to vote to any “native of China” alongside any “idiot, insane person, or person convicted” of various crimes. It also included an entire article titled “Chinese,” directing the Legislature to enact laws to combat “the burdens and evils” posed by Chinese immigrants...

It is past time to acknowledge that the discriminatory exclusion of Chang from the State Bar of California was a grievous wrong. It denied Chang equal protection of the laws; apart from his citizenship, he was by all accounts qualified for admission to the bar. It was also a blow to countless others who, like Chang, aspired to become a lawyer only to have their dream deferred on account of their race, alienage, or nationality. And it was a loss to our communities and to society as a whole, which denied itself the full talents of its people and the important benefits of a diverse population...

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 people and the courts of California were denied Chang’s services as a lawyer. But we need not be denied his example as a pioneer for a more inclusive legal profession.

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