An introduction to Constitutional Law 100 Supreme Court cases everyone should know

Randy E. Barnett & Josh Blackman

In 1880, San Francisco required business owners who operated laundries in wooden buildings to obtain a permit. At the time, about 95 percent of the city’s 320 laundries were located in wooden buildings. And approximately two-thirds of those laundries were owned by people of Chinese descent. Yick Wo (whose real name was Lee Yick) had operated a laundry business in a wooden building for more than two decades. In 1884, after an inspection, he received a license. The City determined that his “appliances for heating” were “not dangerous to the surrounding property from fire.” Yick sought to renew his license a year later, but the government denied his application.

Why was Yick not allowed to renew his license? The San Francisco ordinance allowed the government to deny the license for any reason, or no reason at all. The Supreme Court observed that even if an applicant was “in every way a competent and qualified person,” he could be denied a license “without reason.”

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