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California university law students seek justice denied long ago

Our country has had a long history of racism and exclusion. Sometimes the only way to right a wrong committed in previous centuries is symbolically. That's what some law students at University of California, Davis in Northern California, are trying to do. They are working to have a Chinese man admitted to the state bar association over 120 years after he was denied admission.

The man attended Yale University and Columbia Law School, where he earned his degree in 1886. When he was admitted to the New York state bar, he was reportedly the first Chinese immigrant admitted to any state bar in the country. He moved to California in 1890 to represent his fellow Chinese immigrants in San Francisco.

However, that was not to be. The Chinese Exclusion Act was a federal law that prohibited Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens. Because non-citizens were not allowed to practice law in California, he could not get a law license or gain admission to the state bar.

Now the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association at the UC Davis School of Law is working to get the man admitted to the State Bar of California. APALSA is represented by the law school's California Supreme Court Clinic, which is asking the California Supreme Court to admit the man to the bar posthumously. As the APALSA's faculty advisor says, accomplishing this "would be a powerful symbol of our state's repudiation of laws that singled out Chinese immigrants for discrimination."

The Chinese attorney, despite his inability to practice law in California, had a distinguished career as a diplomat and a banker. His descendants include three attorneys who are members of the state bar. His grandniece calls it "fitting and right to have my granduncle's exclusion reversed by the California Supreme Court to ensure that justice, albeit late, is done."

Posthumous admission to a state bar is not unprecedented. A Japanese immigrant and an African-American were posthumously admitted to other states' bars long after they were excluded due to their country of origin or race.

While our laws have become much more inclusive over the past century-plus since these people were denied the opportunity to practice the profession for which they had trained, there are still people whose prejudices cause them to act illegally in the workplace. Fortunately, victims of this prejudice have the law on their side as they seek justice.

Source: Woodland Daily Democrat, "UC Davis law students seek to right a wrong" Karen Nikos-Rose, UC Davis News Service, Apr. 30, 2014

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