Honoring Hong Yen Chang: a pioneer for a more inclusive legal profession

Recently, the California Supreme Court posthumously granted Hong Yen Chang admission to the California Bar – reversing a 125-year-old decision that denied his application because of his race and national origin. (Read the Court’s decision here; read more about the case here, here, and here.) Chang was born in China and immigrated to the United States in 1872. He graduated from Andover, Yale, and Columbia Law School, and in 1888 gained admission to the New York bar. When he moved to California, however, the State Supreme Court rejected his application for bar admission. Although a New York judge had issued Chang a naturalization certificate in 1888, the California Court found that certificate void under the Chinese Exclusion Act—a now infamous federal law which banned Chinese from becoming naturalized citizens and halted immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years. (Read more about the 1882 Exclusion Act and its subsequent renewal and expansion here, here, and here). Since only United States Citizens and those with a “bona fide . . . intention to become such” were eligible for admission to the California bar in 1890, the Court denied Chang’s application.

In this week’s opinion, the Court called its 1890 decision “a grievous wrong.” Expounding upon the decision’s historical context, the Court described the “hostility towards Chinese labor . . . cultural tension and Xenophobia” that pervaded California’s public policies in the late Nineteenth Century. Now, the Court remarked, the “legal and policy underpinnings of [the] 1890 decision have been discredited.” For example, Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, and California repealed the anti-Chinese provisions of its Constitution in 1952. In 2014, the California Legislature “adopted a resolution acknowledging California’s history of discrimination against its Chinese population.”  Moreover, it is now “‘constitutionally indefensible’ to forbid noncitizens to practice law,” and in California, undocumented immigrants are eligible for bar admission.

While the Court’s decision offers the bar a chance to reflect on progress, Chang’s case should also remind attorneys of their profession’s ongoing need to embrace diversity and inclusion. Women and racial and ethnic minorities make up a disproportionately low percentage of attorneys nationwide, especially at the upper echelons of law firms. Moreover, within the workplace, female and minority lawyers face overt, implicit, and confirmation biases that inhibit advancement within the profession.  Indeed, the American Bar Association acknowledged in 2010 that “despite decades of reports, task forces, and goals,” the legal profession is still far from being diverse and inclusive.

If the Hong Yen Chang decision reminds us that the bar all too often regurgitates society’s prejudices, then the decision also compels us to scrutinize and dismantle inequalities—both within the profession and society at large—that prevent the bar from being diverse and inclusive. As the California Supreme Court recognized, Chang was “a pioneer for a more inclusive legal profession.” What better way to honor his memory than to redouble efforts towards inclusiveness?

David Tracey

David Tracey works primarily on cases involving discrimination, wage and hour violations, employee benefits, and civil rights in the N.Y. office of Sanford Heisler, LLP.  Before becoming a lawyer, David worked as a community organizer around issues of tenants’ rights, environmental health, and gun control. He prides himself on his Bob Dylan impressions that allow him to dominate the karaoke scene.   

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