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Yick Wo v. Hopkins
|Yick Wo v. Hopkins|
Supreme Court of the United States
| Argued April 14, 1886 |
Decided May 10, 1886
|Racially discriminatory application of a facially neutral statute violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Supreme Court of California and Circuit Court for the District of California reversed.|
|U.S. Const. amend. XIV|
Yick Wo v. Hopkins 118 U.S. 356 (1886) was the first case where the United States Supreme Court ruled that a law that was racially neutral on its face that was administered in a prejudicial manner was an infringement of the equality clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In the 1880s, Chinese immigrants to California faced many legal and economic hurdles, including discriminatory provisions in the California constitution. As a result, they were excluded, either by law or by bias, from many professions. As a result, many turned to the laundry business and in San Francisco about 89% of the laundry workers were of Chinese descent.
In 1880, the City of San Francisco passed an ordinance that persons could not operate a laundry in a wooden building without a permit from the board of supervisors. At the time, about 95% of the city's 320 laundries were in wooden buildings. Approximately two-thirds of those laundries were owned by Chinese persons. Although most of the city's wooden building laundry owners applied for a permit, none were granted to any Chinese owner, while only one non-Chinese owner was denied a permit.
Yick Wo, who had lived in California and had operated a laundry in a wooden building for many years, continued to operate his laundry and was convicted and fined $10.00 for violating the ordinance. He sued for a writ of habeas corpus when he refused to pay the fine and was imprisoned in default of the fine.
The state argued that the ordinance was strictly one out of concern for safety, as laundries of the day often needed very hot stoves to boil water for laundry, and indeed laundry fires were not unknown and often resulted in the destruction of adjoining buildings as well.
However, the petitioner pointed out that prior to the new ordinance, the inspection and approval of laundries in wooden building had been left up to fire wardens. Yick Wo's laundry had never failed an inspection for fire safety. Moreover, the application of the prior law focused only on laundries in crowded areas of the city, while the new law was being enforced on isolated wooden buildings as well. The law also ignored other wooden buildings where fires were common - even cooking stoves posed the same risk as those used for laundry.
Mr. Justice Matthews, writing for a unanimous court, noted that it was clear that the administration of the law was discriminatory even if the ordinance was not. Even though the Chinese laundry owners were usually not American citizens, the court ruled they were still entitled to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. He also noted that the court had previously ruled that it was acceptable to hold administrators of the law liable when they abused their authority. He denounced the law as a blatant attempt to exclude Chinese from the laundry trade in San Francisco, and the court struck down the law, ordering dismissal of all charges against other laundry owners who had been jailed.
Yick Wo had little application shortly after the decision. In fact, it was not long after that the Court developed the "separate but equal" doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson, in practice allowing discriminatory treatment of African Americans. Yick Wo was never applied at the time to Jim Crow laws which, although also facially neutral, were in practice discriminatory against blacks. However, by the 1950s, the Warren Court used the principle established in Yick Wo to strike down several attempts by states and municipalities in the deep south to limit the political rights of blacks. Yick Wo has been cited in well over 150 Supreme Court cases since it was decided.
See also: Chinese American
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