Some of the ways in which lawyers do good for the community are geared toward hope for a better future — such as raising money for charity, men
toring others or building houses with Habitat for Humanity.
But for some lawyers, building a better future means righting some of the wrongs of the past. For these attorneys, this entails not just reminding others of some historically-overlooked injustices, but also taking steps to remedy (albeit belatedly) those injustices.
While the legal profession itself has made great strides toward inclusiveness, its past is marked by racial injustice and discriminatory policies that are shocking to today’s lawyers.
One of these efforts to right a 124-year-old wrong is being led by University of California-Davis law professor Gabriel “Jack” Chin and a group of his students, who have submitted an application to practice law to the State Bar of California on behalf of Hong Yeng Chang, who was denied a law license back in 1890 solely on racial grounds.
Chang graduated from Yale University and Columbia Law School in 1886. Although he was initially denied the chance to sit for the New York bar exam, a special act of the state legislature gave him that opportunity. He passed, becoming the first Chinese immigrant to become an American lawyer.
In 1890, Chang moved to California with the intention of starting a law practice that would represent the booming Chinese immigrant community in San Francisco.
But the California Supreme Court denied his application, pointing to a federal law—the Chinese Exclusion Act—that barred Chinese from becoming U.S. citizens, as well as a California law banning noncitizens from practicing law.
The court’s decision in Chang’s case is still studied today in law schools as an example of 19th century bigotry. In 1943, Congress finally repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act, and in recent years both the Senate and the House of Representatives have issued apologies for the discriminating effects of that act and similar laws.
In 1972, the California Supreme Court allowed noncitizens to earn licenses to practice in the state. Chang himself, though denied admission to the California bar, went on to a distinguished career in banking and diplomacy.
While there is no precedent in California for granting a posthumous law license, there have been similar efforts at redressing past discrimination.
In March 2001, the Washington State Supreme Court posthumously admitted Takuji Yamashita, who graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in 1902, and passed the bar exam, but was denied admission to the bar.
Like California, Washington’s supreme court and attorney general at the time relied on federal law excluding Asians from becoming citizens, and on the prerequisite of citizenship to be a member of the bar.
Yamashita appealed to the state’s highest court, arguing that this denial was an affront to the values of “the most enlightened and liberty-loving nation of them all,” but the state’s attorneys derided Yamashita’s “worn out Star Spangled Banner orations.”
After the state won, Yamashita faded for a time into obscurity, becoming a hotel owner and strawberry farmer in Kitsap County, Wash.
But he came roaring back in 1922 with a new crusade, this time against the state’s Alien Land Law, which prohibited “ineligible aliens” (primarily Asians) from owning land. Yamashita took his fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but unfortunately fared no better than he had with the Washington Supreme Court in 1902.
Not until 1952 would Congress permit Japanese immigrants to become U.S. citizens, and it wasn’t until 1965 that Congress treated Asian immigrants on an equal footing with their European counterparts.
Washington state finally repealed the Alien Land Law in 1966 (on the fourth try), and it took until 1973 for the U.S. Supreme Court to grant legal aliens the right to practice law in all states.
Yamashita’s failed quests, first for a law license and then for the right to own land, became little more than dusty legal footnotes. Like other Japanese-Americans, he was confined to internment camps during World War II.
He returned to Japan for what would be the last two years of his life, dying there in 1959 at the age of 84.
In the mid-1990s, several historians and descendants of Yamashita began to piece together his incredible story and to lobby the state of Washington to address the injustices of the past.
The ceremony marking his posthumous admission was a focal point of the University of Washington Law School’s centennial, and Yamashita was belatedly honored by then-Gov. Gary Locke, Attorney General Christine Gregoire and other dignitaries with 17 of Yamashita’s descendants from Japan in attendance.
Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander observed that “It’s impossible to undo what happened to Mr. Yamashita, but it’s important for us to make a statement that these things were wrong. It’s a step toward healing.”
Another precedent for admitting Chang comes from Pennsylvania. In 2010, the Pennsylvania Bar set right its own historical injustice 163 years after denying African-American George B. Vashon admission to the bar.
Vashon, born a free man in Pennsylvania in 1824, became the first African-American to receive bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oberlin College.
He then “read the law” under the tutelage of Judge Walter Forward (who would later become U.S. Secretary of the Treasury), and made application to practice law in Allegheny County in 1847.
But Vashon was denied admittance on the basis of his “Negro descent.” Vashon then moved to New York, where he became the first African-American lawyer in that state.
While he would go on to practice law in Syracuse and become best known as a professor (Vashon was Howard University’s first professor), Vashon never forgot being snubbed in Pennsylvania. After being admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1867, Vashon again sought admission from Allegheny County the next year, only to be denied yet again.
After reading an article about Vashon’s life, Pittsburgh attorney Wendell Freeland was struck by the injustice. In January 2010, along with several of Vashon’s descendants, Freeland and his co-counsel Leslie Carter filed a petition to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, seeking a declaration that Vashon was qualified to be admitted to the bar.
The court agreed, and in a ceremony on Oct. 20, 2010, George B. Vashon was at last admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. His great-grandson Nolan N. Atkinson, Jr., who himself is a lawyer with a large national firm, said of the belated recognition, “[It] both acknowledges Mr. Vashon’s many accomplishments in law, scholarship, education, and justice—often in the face of great resistance—and finally redresses an historical injustice.”
In the case of Hong Yeng Chang, California’s Committee of Bar Examiners is scheduled to make its decisions in June on recommendations to the state supreme court about whether to admit or deny admission to bar applicants.
Laura Emde, a spokeswoman for the State Bar of California, calls this “a unique situation.” But clearly precedent exists, in the form of actions by two state supreme courts, for righting such past wrongs, even if it is merely a symbolic gesture.
As Professor Chin points out, “Admitting Mr. Chang would be a powerful symbol of our state’s repudiation of laws that singled out Chinese immigrants for discrimination.”