2 minute read

Yick Wo v. Hopkins: 1886

Appellant: Yick Wo
Defendant: Sheriff Peter Hopkins, San Francisco, California
Appellant Claim: That San Francisco was enforcing an ordinance in an unlawfully discriminatory manner against the defendant and other Chinese persons
Chief Defense Lawyers: Alfred Clarke and H. G. Sieberst
Chief Lawyers for Appellant: Hall McAllister, D.L. Smoot, and L.H. Van Schaick
Justices: Samuel Blatchford, Joseph P. Bradley, Stephen J. Field, Horace Gray, John Marshall Harlan, Stanley Matthews, Samuel F. Miller, Morrison Waite, and William B. Woods
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Decision: May 10, 1886
Decision: That Yick Wo's conviction for violating the ordinance was unconstitutional

SIGNIFICANCE: In Yick Wo, the Supreme Court proclaimed that even if a law was nondiscriminatory, enforcing the law in a discriminatory manner was unconstitutional.

On May 26, 1880, the City of San Francisco, California enacted an ordinance requiring all commercial laundries to be in brick or stone buildings. Wooden buildings were permissible, but only with the Board of Supervisors' approval. The ordinance made no distinction between laundries run by Chinese immigrants and those run by whites. However, the ordinance was enforced in a blatantly racist manner. The board rubber-stamped its approval of white petitions to run laundries in wooden buildings, but denied every one of the nearly 200 Chinese petitions.

Sheriff Peter Hopkins enforced the ordinance, arresting Yick Wo and over 150 other Chinese persons who continued to run laundries in wooden buildings without board approval. Yick Wo was convicted and ordered to pay a fine of $10 or spend 10 days in jail. The California Supreme Court upheld his conviction, and he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for an order preventing San Francisco in the person of Sheriff Hopkins from carrying out the sentence. Hopkins was represented by Alfred Clarke and H.G. Sieberst and Yick Wo was represented by Hall McAllister, D.L. Smoot and L. H. Van Schaick. The Supreme Court heard both sides' arguments on April 14, 1886 and issued its decision on May 10, 1886.

The Court reversed Yick Wo's conviction, holding that the ordinance was being unfairly administered:

Though the law itself be fair on its face and impartial in appearance, yet, if it is applied and administered by public authority with an evil eye and an unequal hand, so as practically to make unjust and illegal discriminations between persons in similar circumstances, material to their rights, the denial of equal justice is still within the prohibition of the Constitution.…

And while this consent of the supervisors is withheld from [Yick Wo] and from two hundred others who have also petitioned, all of whom happen to be Chinese subjects, eighty others, not Chinese subjects, are permitted to carry on the same business under similar conditions. The fact of this discrimination is admitted. No reason for it is shown, and the conclusion cannot be resisted, that no reason for it exists except hostility to the race and nationality to which the petitioners belong.

The significance of the Yick Wo decision is that, even if a law is nondiscriminatory, enforcing the law in a discriminatory manner is unconstitutional.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Nelson, William Edward. The Fourteenth Amendment. From Political Principle to Judicial Doctrine. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Pole, J. R. The Pursuit of Equality in American History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917