As reported in the California Bar Journal this month, the California Supreme Court made history last month when it granted posthumous State Bar admission to Hong Yen Chang, who was denied a law license 125 years ago due to federal and state laws denying citizenship and employment to Chinese Americans.

Hong Yen Chang
Hong Yen Chang – Courtesy of the Ah Tye Family

Chang overcame numerous obstacles to become licensed to practice in New York in 1888, but when he moved to California two years later, the high court here rejected his application.

Hong Yen Chang, a native of China, came to this country in 1872 as part of an educational program to teach Chinese youth about the West.

Chang graduated from the Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1879 and earned his undergraduate degree at Yale.

He went on to graduate from Columbia Law School in 1886. He applied for admission to the New York Bar, but despite a “high marking” and unanimous recommendation from the bar examiners, he was turned down by the state supreme court in 1887 because he was not a citizen.

That same year, a New York judge issued Chang a certificate of naturalization.  After the New York Legislature passed a law allowing him to reapply for bar admission, Chang was admitted in 1888, becoming the only regularly admitted Chinese lawyer in this country.

Since then, the anti-Chinese exclusionary laws and policies that led to his rejection have been renounced.

“Even if we cannot undo history, we can acknowledge it and, in doing so, 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 in its unanimous March 16 opinion.

Chang’s descendants and the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association at the University of California Davis School of Law spearheaded the effort to right the historic wrong.

The law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson, working pro bono, filed a petition with the court late last year.

“I thought it was important to start addressing a stain on California’s judicial history and make amends to the Chinese people,” Munger partner and former State Bar President Jeffrey Bleich told the Los Angeles Times.

The state Senate called for Chang’s admission to the bar via a unanimous resolution and the State Bar of California granted Chang honorary membership “in repudiation of the discrimination against Asians that unjustly formed the basis for barring his admission to the bar in 1890.”

UC Davis Law Professor Gabriel Chin told the San Francisco Chronicle, that the case showed both the rewards of a long fight for justice and the drawbacks of having to wait more than a century for it.

Chin also told the newspaper that it was fitting that Monday’s ruling came from “perhaps the most diverse state Supreme Court in the country.” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Ming Chin and Goodwin Liu are of Asian descent and Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar was born in Mexico.

Rachelle Chong, Chang’s grandniece and one of four family members who’ve become California lawyers, told the  San Jose Mercury News the family is “thrilled” the state Supreme Court reversed its own 1890 ruling. She, along with a cousin working on a book about Chang, discovered the old Supreme Court ruling while in law school in the early 1990s. Chong was the first Asian-American to serve on the Federal Communications Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission.

“We feel we were the only family left to try to clear up this historic wrong,” she told the paper.

I was very pleased to read this and just had to share it.  Reading about Mr. Chang’s history was absolutely fascinating and I am awestruck by his tenacity.  His family tree of descendants is now filled with lawyers and this must make him proud; that all he went through in his lifetime paved the way for his family.

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