1886 Columbia Law School Graduate Admitted to California State Bar Posthumously
Hong Yen Chang Was Denied Admission Under Anti-Chinese Laws; in 2014, Dean Emeritus David M. Schizer Wrote a Letter in Support of Reversing the Discriminatory Decision
New York, March 23, 2015—A Chinese Columbia Law School graduate who was denied admission to the California State Bar 125 years ago has been granted a law license by the state posthumously.
Hong Yen Chang, who came to the United States in 1872 as part of an educational program, graduated from Columbia Law School in 1886. Although he passed the bar exam and was unanimously recommended by bar examiners, he was denied admission to the New York State Bar because he was not a citizen. In 1888, after he was issued a certificate of naturalization and after the state legislature passed a law allowing him to reapply, Chang was admitted to the New York State Bar. He was the first Chinese-born lawyer in the United States.
But when he relocated to California, Chang’s application to that state’s bar was rejected in 1890 under the federal Chinese Exclusion Act. Chang ultimately went on to become a successful banker and diplomat.
On March 16, following efforts by the University of California, Davis School of Law’s Asian Pacific American Law Students Association—which were supported by Columbia Law School Dean Emeritus David M. Schizer—the California Supreme Court issued a nine-page ruling reversing that 125-year-old decision.
“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’s justices wrote in a unanimous decision. “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.”
Schizer, the Harvey R. Miller Professor of Law and Economics, wrote a letter to the California State Bar on behalf of the UC Davis students’ petition for Chang, supporting “the effort to correct any injustice based solely on national origin.”
Columbia Law School has one of the highest representations of students of Asian descent among U.S. law schools. In the 1960s, it became the first school among its peers to employ a full-time faculty member specializing in Chinese law. Shortly after diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China were restored in 1979, the Law School began regular faculty exchanges with Chinese academics and practitioners. In 2006, Columbia Law School was the first American law school to launch an ABA-approved student exchange program with schools in both Shanghai and Beijing.
Over the years, Columbia Law School scholars have traveled to China to conduct research, serve as visiting professors, participate in conferences, and advise on developing new laws. In addition, hundreds of alumni and former visiting scholars have gone on to play prominent roles at leading Chinese law schools.
“As the court indicated, this is a decision that is important and overdue,” said Benjamin L. Liebman, the Robert L. Lieff Professor of Law and director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies. “We are proud that Hong Yen Chang graduated from Columbia Law School. I am sure he could not have imagined that a century later Columbia Law School would have hundreds of alumni in China and thousands of distinguished Asian-American graduates.”