The Waite Court (1882-1887). Seated, from left to right: Justices Joseph P. Bradley, Samuel F. Miller, and Chief Justice Morrison Waite, and Justices Stephen J. Field and Stanley Matthews. Standing, from left to right: Justices William B. Woods, Samuel Blatchford, John Marshall Harlan, and Horace Gray. (The Justices are not standing in the correct seniority order. Justice John Marshall Harlan, the 5th most senior Justice, should be seated in the first chair from the right. Instead, Justice Stanley Matthews, the 7th most senior justice, is seated in that chair.)
Chinatown in San Francisco (1898)
Chinese Quarter in San Francisco (Circa 1900)
The 14th Amendment
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.” Because the ordinance “acknowledges neither guidance nor restraint.” A law with such wide discretion was “purely arbitrary” and beyond the police power of a state to enact.
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.”