Chae Chan Ping v. United States

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Chae Chan Ping v. United States
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued March 28–29, 1889
Decided May 13, 1889
Full case nameChae Chan Ping v. United States
Citations130 U.S. 581 (more)
9 S. Ct. 623; 32 L. Ed. 1068; 1889 U.S. LEXIS 1778
Case history
PriorAppeal from the circuit court of the United States for the Northern district of California
Court membership
Chief Justice
Melville Fuller
Associate Justices
Samuel F. Miller · Stephen J. Field
Joseph P. Bradley · John M. Harlan
Horace Gray · Samuel Blatchford
Lucius Q. C. Lamar II
Case opinion
MajorityField, joined by unanimous
Laws applied
Scott Act

Chae Chan Ping v. United States, 130 U.S. 581 (1889),[1] decided by the United States Supreme Court on May 13, 1889, and better known as the Chinese Exclusion Case, was a case challenging the Scott Act of 1888, an addendum to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.[2][1] One of the grounds of challenge was that it ran afoul of the Burlingame Treaty of 1868. The Supreme Court rejected the challenge, upholding the authority of the Federal Government of the United States to set immigration policy and pass new legislation that would override the terms of previous international treaties.[1] The decision was an important precedent for the Supreme Court's deference to the plenary power of the United States legislative branches in immigration law and in their authority to overturn the terms of international treaties. Although the term consular nonreviewability would not be used until the 20th century, the case was cited as a key precedent in the defining cases that established the doctrine of consular nonreviewability.[3] As such, it played an important role in limiting the role of the judiciary in shaping immigration to the United States.

The case[edit]

Backdrop of laws[edit]

In 1868, the United States and China entered into the Burlingame Treaty, establishing formal friendly relations between the two countries, and granting China most favored nation status. The treaty encouraged immigration from China, and granted some privileges to citizens of either country residing in the other, but withheld the privilege of naturalization for immigrants from China.

On November 17, 1880, the Burlingame Treaty was amended to suspend but not prohibit immigration from China. The amendment was called the Treaty Regulating Immigration from China, and historians refer to it as the Angell Treaty of 1880. The prefix stated: "The United States, because of the constantly increasing immigration of Chinese labourers to the territory of the United States and the embarrassments consequent upon such immigration now desires to negotiate a modification of the existing Treaties which shall not be in direct contravention to their spirit."[4]

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, forbidding the immigration of skilled and unskilled laborers from China to the United States. The rights of prior immigrants were not significantly amended. An 1884 Amendment to the Chinese Exclusion Act required Chinese citizens to obtain re-entry permits if they wished to return after temporarily leaving the United States. On October 1, 1888, the United States government passed the Scott Act. Authored by William Lawrence Scott of Pennsylvania, the act was signed into law by United States President Grover Cleveland on October 1, 1888.[5][6] The act forbade re-entry of Chinese immigrants to the United States who would not otherwise be eligible to enter the United States if immigrating for the first time. This went against the privileges that the Burlingame Treaty gave Chinese immigrants to the United States.

Case details[edit]

Chae Chan Ping (Chinese: 遲成平) was a Chinese citizen who had moved to San Francisco, California, in 1875. He worked in the United States from 1875 to June 2, 1887, and then left to visit his homeland of China, after obtaining a certificate that would entitle him to return to the United States. The certificate was issued in accordance with provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act.[1]

On October 1, 1888, while he was outside the United States, the Scott Act became law. This Act forbade his re-entry.

Chae Chan Ping departed on his return journey to the United States on September 7, 1888, from Hong Kong, on the steamship Belgic. On October 8, 1888, the ship landed within the port of San Francisco. He requested entry to the United States, presenting his certificate. He was denied entry based on the Scott Act. Captain Walker, the captain of the Belgic, detained Ping on board.[1]

A writ of habeas corpus was filed on behalf of Ping, requesting that the captain release him and allow him to be presented in court. The captain complied. Ping appeared before the court, which determined that he was not being deprived of liberty, and returned him to the control of the captain. Ping appealed the order, and the case reached the United States Supreme Court.[1]

The arguments for the case were heard by the Court on March 28 and 29, 1889. Ping was represented by Thos. D. Riordan, Harvey S. Brown, George Hoadly, and Jas. C. Carter. Geo. A. Johnson, John F. Swift, and Stephen M. White represented the State of California, and Sol. Gen. Jenks represented the Federal Government of the United States.[1]

Key points of contention[edit]

A number of different arguments were made by the lawyers representing Ping, and the Supreme Court's opinion on these arguments would serve an important precedent for future decisions:

  • The appeal challenged the authority of the United States legislative and executive branches to overturn international treaties, and implicitly claimed that any such overturning was subject to judicial oversight.
  • The appeal also argued that the right of visitation in a treaty was a form of property protected by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
  • The appeal referenced previous criticisms by legal scholars of the constitutionality of the Alien and Sedition Acts passed in 1798.


In its decision published on May 13, 1889, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the decision of the lower court. Justice Stephen Johnson Field, who had risen to the position of Supreme Court justice after serving on the California Supreme Court, penned the opinion of the Court. Field had previously pushed back against legislation such as the Pigtail Ordinance that was de facto discriminatory against the Chinese, courting unpopularity in California.[7] However, his opinion in this case employed rhetoric that was more in line with public sentiment regarding the Chinese at the time, and was consistent with his dissent in Chew Heong v. United States, a related challenge to the Chinese Exclusion Act that was decided against the United States government.

Field offered a number of reasons for the Court's decision:[1]

  1. He clarified that the United States Government could pass new legislation overriding the terms of past treaties. In that case, the treaty would be treated only as valid law for the time period before the new legislation became effective. Although there were no direct precedents in the domain of immigration law, Field cited past precedents involving trade treaties, where the government had changed trade laws, negating the terms of previous treaties, and the courts had rejected appeals challenging the change in law. Examples cited included:[1]
    • Taylor v. Morton, 67 U.S. 481 (1862):[8] In this case, the Supreme Court upheld a change in the United States tariff structure on hemp that overrode terms of a treaty between the United States and Russia.
    • Whitney v. Robertson, 124 U.S. 190 (1888):[9] This upheld the United States government's authority to interpret ambiguous treaty terms as it saw fit.
  2. He noted that, when the Burlingame Treaty was amended in 1880, the Chinese government had conceded the authority of the United States to regulate immigration from China.
  3. He noted past precedent in treaties and international diplomatic communication between the United States and other countries, including Switzerland, France, and Mexico, asserting that governments had the authority to regulate immigration in the national interest, and that this authority existed even when the wisdom of particular decisions was in question.
  4. He noted that the judiciary was not the right place to appeal any violation of the terms of international treaties, but rather this was a diplomatic matter for the governments of the respective countries to sort out among themselves.

Relation with other Court cases[edit]

Other Chinese Exclusion Cases[edit]

The case is sometimes called the Chinese Exclusion Case, on account of being the most important case directly pertaining to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Some commentators use the term "Chinese Exclusion Cases" for a collection of cases including this one that were decided in the aftermath of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The five cases were:[10]

  1. Chew Heong v. United States (1884): Heong had lived in the United States and left to visit China before the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. An Amendment to the Act in 1884 would require all Chinese in the United States to obtain a re-entry permit prior to departure. Heong, who returned to the United States without a permit, was denied re-entry and appealed the decision. The appeal was granted and Heong was allowed to re-enter the country. This is the only one of the five cases that was decided against the United States government.
  2. Chae Chan Ping v. United States (1889) (current page)
  3. Fong Yue Ting v. United States (1893): The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the United States government to deport Fong Yue Ting and two other Chinese residents who were deemed by the United States government to not hold valid residency permits. The decision reaffirmed that the government's power to deport foreigners is an absolute and unqualified right, just like its power to regulate entry.
  4. Lem Moon Sing v. United States (1895): This upheld the decision of the United States Congress in the Geary Act of 1892 to exclude foreigners from entry without any habeas corpus relief.
  5. United States v. Ju Toy (1905): The Supreme Court further allowed Congress to deny the writ of habeas corpus even to persons claiming to be United States citizens.

Another related case that was decided somewhat differently is that of United States v. Wong Kim Ark, where the Supreme Court held that a person born in the United States of Chinese citizens legally residing in the United States automatically became a U.S. citizen. The decision established an important precedent in its interpretation of the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Value as a precedent for later doctrines in immigration law[edit]

In the case, and the subsequent Chinese Exclusion Cases, the Supreme Court repeatedly sided with the United States government and against aliens, offering the rationale that immigration policy and its enforcement were a matter for the legislative and executive branches. Some commentators argue that this case was an important precedent in establishing the plenary power doctrine that immunizes from judicial review the substantive immigration decisions of the United States Congress and the executive branch of the United States government.[11][12] Others have disagreed about the significance of these cases for plenary power.[13] The defining case for the plenary power doctrine, Knauff v. Shaughnessy (1950) did not explicitly cite the case.

Some commentators have also cited the decisions made in the case as having precedential value for the doctrine of consular nonreviewability that would emerge in the latter half of the 20th century, though it was not a direct precedent.[3] Although the case did not touch on the authority of United States consulates, it arguably addressed similar questions: the task of determining whether an individual would be allowed to enter the United States was at the time solely undertaken by the officer at the port of entry, whereas by the middle of the 20th century the main filtering step was done by consular officers evaluating visa applications.[3][14]

The purported significance attached to the case, passed at a time when anti-Chinese sentiment was much greater than now and may have played a role in influencing the court decisions, has been critiqued by commentators and compared to using Dred Scott v. Sandford or Plessy v. Fergusson (decisions whose reasoning has been rejected and that are believed to have been influenced by the greater levels of racism at the time) as precedents.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Chae Chan Ping v. United States, 130 U.S. 581 (1889).  This article incorporates public domain material from this U.S government document.
  2. ^ "Chae Chan Ping v. United States". Immigration to the United States. Retrieved October 23, 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d Dobkin, Donald. "Challenging the Doctrine of Consular Non-Reviewability in Immigration Cases" (PDF). Retrieved January 8, 2016.
  4. ^ Scott, David. China and the International System, 1840-1949: Power, Presence, and Perceptions in a Century of Humiliation.
  5. ^ "Scott Act (1888)". Harpweek. Archived from the original on January 10, 2015. Retrieved January 16, 2015.
  6. ^ The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions. Retrieved January 16, 2015.
  7. ^ McCloskey, American Conservatism, pp. 109-111.
  8. ^ Taylor v. Morton, 67 U.S. 481 (1862).
  9. ^ Whitney v. Robertson, 124 U.S. 190 (1888).
  10. ^ Thomas Tandy Lewis. "Chinese Exclusion Cases". Immigration to the United States. Retrieved October 24, 2015.
  11. ^ Chin, Gabriel. "Chae Chan Ping and Fong Yue Ting: The Origins of Plenary Power". SSRN 722681. Missing or empty |url= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  12. ^ Feere, John (February 1, 2009). "Plenary Power: Should Judges Control U.S. Immigration Policy?". Center for Immigration Studies. Retrieved February 27, 2016.
  13. ^ Maltz, Eric (April 2, 2012). "The Devil Made Me Do It: The Plenary Power Doctrine and the Myth of the Chinese Exclusion Case". SSRN 2033249. Missing or empty |url= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  14. ^ "Brief of Amicus Curiae Law Professors in Support of Respondent (Kerry v. Din)" (PDF). American Bar Association.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]