- Yick Wo v. Hopkins
Litigants=Yick Wo v. Hopkins
Litigants2=Wo Lee v. Hopkins
FullName=Yick Wo v. Hopkins, Sheriff
Citation=6 S. Ct. 1064; 30 L. Ed. 220; 1886 U.S. LEXIS 1938
Prior="In re Yick Wo", writ of habeas corpus denied, 9 P. 139 (Cal. 1885); "In re Wo Lee", writ of habeas corpus denied, 26 F. 471 (D. Cal. 1886)
Holding=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.
LawsApplied=U.S. Const. amend. XIV
"Yick Wo v. Hopkins" 118 U.S. 356 (1886)caselaw source
case="Yick Wo v. Hopkins", 118 U.S. 356 (1886)
findlaw=http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=CASE&court=US&vol=118&page=356] , was the first case where the
United States Supreme Courtruled that a law that was race-neutralon its face that was administered in a prejudicial manner was an infringement of the Equal Protection Clausein 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. Many turned to the
laundrybusiness and in San Franciscoabout 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 (
Americanization: Lee Yick), who had lived in Californiaand 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 corpuswhen he refused to pay the fine and was imprisoned in default of the fine.
Issue before the Court
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.
Opinion of the Court
The Court, in a unanimous opinion written by
Justice Matthews, 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", 163 U.S. 537 (1896), in practice allowing discriminatory treatment of African Americans. "Yick Wo" was never applied at the time to Jim Crow lawswhich, although also racially neutral, were in practice discriminatory against blacks. However, by the 1950s, the Warren Courtused 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.
San Franciscothere is a public school named Yick Wo Alternative Elementary Schoolin honor of Yick Wo.
Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance
List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 118
* Chin, Gabriel J. (2007), [http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1075563 "Unexplainable on Grounds of Race: Doubts About "Yick Wo] , Arizona Legal Studies Working Paper No. 30-07.
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