SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The California Supreme Court unanimously - and posthumously - admitted Hong Yen Chang to the state bar Monday, 125 years after denying him entry because of his Chinese ethnicity.
In a nine-page unsigned opinion, the Golden State's highest court said it is "past time to acknowledge that the discriminatory exclusion of Chang from the State Bar was a grievous wrong."
Chang, a native of China, came to the United States in 1872 as part of an educational program to teach young Chinese students about the West. He earned his undergraduate degree from Yale and graduated from Columbia Law School in 1886.
The New York Supreme Court initially turned down Chang's bar application because he was not a U.S. citizen. But in 1887, Chang became naturalized and a year later became the only Chinese lawyer admitted to the bar in the United States.
Chang relocated to California in hopes of serving the large Chinese community in San Francisco. Those hopes were dashed when the California Supreme Court - noting that Chinese nationals were specifically barred from becoming naturalized citizens by the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and that his certificate of naturalization from New York had been issued "without authority of law" - denied him admission to the bar here in 1890.
"More than a century later, the legal and policy underpinnings of our 1890 decision have been discredited. In 1972, this court unanimously held it was 'constitutionally indefensible' to forbid noncitizens to practice law, calling such a ban 'the lingering vestige of a xenophobic attitude' that 'should now be allowed to join those anachronistic classifications among the crumbled pedestals of history,'" the court wrote, citing its decision in Raffaelli v. Committee of Bar Examiners.
The justices also noted that the Legislature passed a law in 2013 making undocumented immigrants eligible for admission to the bar. And last year, the court admitted Sergio Garcia to practice law despite his immigration status - and over the objections of the Justice Department.
In light of these events and after years of effort by Chang's descendents and others, the court said it was time to right the wrongs done to Chang by it and the Legislature so long ago.
"Even if we cannot undo history, we can acknowledge it and, in so doing, accord a full measure of recognition to Chang's path-breaking efforts to become the first lawyer of Chinese descent in the United States," the court wrote. "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.
"In granting Hong Yen Chang posthumous admission to the California Bar, we affirm his rightful place among the ranks of persons deemed qualified to serve as an attorney and counselor at law in the courts of California," the court concluded.
Chang went on to become a diplomat for China instead, stationed in Washington and British Columbia.
He later returned to Berkeley, where he died in 1926.
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