United States Court for China

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The United States Court for China was a United States district court that had extraterritorial jurisdiction over U.S. citizens in China. It existed from 1906 to 1943 and had jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters, with appeals taken to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.


Extraterritorial jurisdiction in China was first granted to the United States by the Treaty of Wanghia upon ratification in 1845, followed by the Treaty of Tientsin ratified in 1860. Before the establishment of the United States Court for China, U.S. citizens were tried in the U.S. Consular Courts in China. The United States Court for China was similar in structure to the British Supreme Court for China that had been established in Shanghai in 1865.

Establishment of Court[edit]

The U.S. Court for China was established in 1906 and located in the Shanghai International Settlement, with additional sessions held at least annually in the Chinese cities of Canton, Tientsin, and Hankau.[1] The U.S. Consular Courts in China retained limited jurisdiction, including civil cases where property involved in the controversy did not exceed $500 and criminal cases where the punishment for the offense charged did not exceed a $100 fine, 60 days imprisonment, or both. The Court exercised appellate jurisdiction over both the U.S. Consular Courts in China and the U.S. Consular Courts in Korea. The District had only one judge, and those on trial sometimes had to wait months for proceedings.

The Court was supposed to apply United States law in China. This led to severe difficulties because U.S. federal law did not cover many criminal offenses or civil matters (which were normally provided for by U.S. state law). Even worse, U.S. civil procedure in actions at law (i.e., most lawsuits for monetary damages) in U.S. federal courts was also normally provided for by state law from the enactment of the Conformity Act of 1872 to the promulgation of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in 1938. Although the "state" (i.e., China) in which the court sat did have its own legal system, there was never any serious consideration given to applying traditional Chinese law in the Court.

The solution that was found to this conundrum was to apply Alaskan law or District of Columbia law, which were deemed to be United States law. Judge Lobingier gave detailed evidence on the workings of, and application of law by, the court and extraterritoriality in China to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in 1917.[2]

Because the court was based outside of the United States, the United States Constitution did not apply; there was no right to a jury trial nor to constitutional due process.[3]

Closing of Court[edit]

The United States Consulate and Court in Shanghai were occupied by the Japanese on 8 December 1941 at the beginning of the Pacific War. The Judge and other staff were interned for 6 months before being repatriated. Americans continued to enjoy extraterritorial rights in those parts of China not occupied by the Japanese.

On 11 January 1943, the U.S. and China signed the Treaty for Relinquishment of Extraterritorial Rights in China, thereby relinquishing all U.S. extraterritorial rights. The treaty was ratified in May 1943 and came into force then. As a result, both the U.S. Court for China and the U.S. Consular Courts in China were abolished. However, their judgments continued to serve as res judicata within China.

Final Case[edit]

The very last case before the court was heard in Chungking (Chongqing) starting on 14 January 1943. Boatner Carney of the Flying Tigers was prosecuted for manslaughter before Special Judge Bertrand E Johnson. Carney was convicted of unlawful killing and sentenced to two years imprisonment. He was pardoned 6 months later by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Judges of the United States Court for China[edit]

Two individuals were also appointed Special Judges of the Court to try cases when the Judge was not available. They were:

Commissioner of the United States Court for China[edit]

  • 1918-1923: Ferno Schul
  • 1923–1928: Nelson Erroll Lurton (1883–1956)
  • 1928–19??: Alexander Krisel (1890–1983)

Notable Attorneys[edit]

The following attorneys of note practiced before the court:


Further reading[edit]