HISTORIC SUPREME COURT DECISIONS A C-SPAN ORIGINAL TV SERIES
Yick Wo v. Hopkins | 1886
Guests:
South Texas College of Law Associate Professor
Columbia University Asian-American Studies & History Professor
Subject: Equal Protection for Non-Citizens
Summary
Case Decided:
May 10, 1886

Yick Wo v. Hopkins The Court's decision in this was seen as trailblazing -- it struck down legislation aimed at closing Chinese-operated laundries in San Francisco and guaranteed non-citizens the Constitution's protections. It was the first case to use the "equal protection" clause of the 14th Amendment, which prohibits states from denying any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the law. In a unanimous decision the Supreme Court ruled laws with discriminatory intent were unconstitutional. This landmark case has been cited over 150 times since the Court's decision.

Many Chinese migrated to the U.S. during the Gold Rush and owning laundries was a common business among these immigrants. Yick Wo was one such laundromat. Most Chinese laundries were in wooden buildings and in 1880, San Francisco's board of supervisors passed legislation banning laundries from operating in wooden buildings without a permit. Following the law's passage, every single Chinese owned laundromat was denied permits while only one white owner was denied a permit. The owner of Yick Wo laundry was charged with violating the law after he continued to run his business without a permit.

The Supreme Court overturned his conviction and ruled it was unconstitutional to discriminate against a group of people in passage or enforcement of legislation. This decision opened the doors for immigrant integration in American society and established precedent for subsequent cases with similar issues affecting non-citizens.

Explainers
Key Players
Lee Yick
Yick Wo was a laundry owned by Chinese immigrant Lee Yick in San Francisco, California. In 1880 San Francisco passed legislation that all laundries in wooden buildings had to get approval by the Board of Supervisors to obtain a license. Every Chinese laundry owner who applied was denied a permit while white-owned laundries were granted a permit. Lee Yick was arrested for refusing to pay a fine and booked under the name of his laundromat; police never bothered to correct the file. After making its way to the Supreme Court, Yick Wo resulted in one of the first opinions to establish equal protection for all people despite their legal status -- a strengthening of Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Justice Stanley Matthews
Stanley Matthews (July 21, 1824 – March 22, 1989) was a lawyer, senator and Supreme Court Justice (1881-1888). During his short occupancy in the Supreme Court, Justice Matthews advocated equal protection rights for all racial minorities, and had a lasting influence on American law.
Peter Hopkins
Peter Hopkins was the Sheriff of the San Francisco police department (1885-1886) and the defendant in Yick Wo v. Hopkins. According to the Guardians of the City, Hopkins fought in the Mexican War of 1846 and served as Fire Commissioner for the City. He was responsible for arresting Lee Wo and over 150 other Chinese persons for not meeting the board of approval’s laundry regulations.
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