California grants posthumous law license to nation's first Chinese-born lawyer

By Eric M. Johnson

By Eric M. Johnson

(Reuters) - California's top court granted a posthumous law license on Monday to the country's first recognized lawyer born in China, an immigrant who was denied the right to practice law in the state in 1890 because of his race.

The California Supreme Court agreed with descendants of Hong Yen Chang and the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA) at the University of California, Davis School of Law who sought to have him admitted to the California Bar.

"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 court wrote in its unanimous ruling.

Chang, a native of China, came to the United States in 1872 as part of an educational program, ultimately earning an undergraduate degree at Yale in 1879. He graduated from Columbia Law School in 1886.

New York state initially rejected Chang's admission to the bar in 1887 because he was not a U.S. citizen. But the following year, he became the only regularly admitted Chinese lawyer in the country after a judge issued him a naturalization certificate and the New York legislature passed a law allowing him to reapply for the bar.

Chang then relocated to California, where the Supreme Court rejected his admission, saying his naturalization certificate violated the federal Chinese Exclusion Act from 1882 and was void because Chang was "a person of Mongolian nativity."

"More than a century later, the legal and policy underpinnings of our 1890 decision have been discredited," the court wrote on Monday.

The California high court cited hostility toward the Chinese, cultural tensions and xenophobia, as well as a state laws designed "to disadvantage Chinese immigrants" who moved to California with other immigrants following the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s.

In 1972, the court unanimously held it was "constitutionally indefensible" to forbid non-citizens to practice law. The U.S. Supreme Court reached the same conclusion a year later and, in 2013, the California Legislature passed a law making undocumented immigrants eligible for bar admission.

The California Supreme Court in 2014 granted a law license to an undocumented Mexican immigrant.

"We hope this demonstrates to our community the ability and power we have to advocate for our rights, affirm diversity in the legal profession, and ensure equity through the legal system," APALSA said in a statement.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle, additional reporting by Dan Levine in San Francisco; Editing by G Crosse and Sandra Maler)