Yick Wo v. Hopkins

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Yick Wo v. Hopkins
Wo Lee v. Hopkins
Submitted April 14, 1886
Decided May 10, 1886
Full case nameYick Wo v. Hopkins, Sheriff
Citations118 U.S. 356 (more)
6 S. Ct. 1064; 30 L. Ed. 220; 1886 U.S. LEXIS 1938
Case history
PriorIn 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)
Racially discriminatory application of a racially neutral statute violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Supreme Court of California and Circuit Court for the District of California reversed.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Morrison Waite
Associate Justices
Samuel F. Miller · Stephen J. Field
Joseph P. Bradley · John M. Harlan
William B. Woods · Stanley Matthews
Horace Gray · Samuel Blatchford
Case opinion
MajorityMatthews, joined by unanimous
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV

Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356 (1886), was the first case where the United States Supreme Court ruled that a law that is race-neutral on its face, but is administered in a prejudicial manner, is an infringement of the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.[1]


The immigration of Chinese to California began in 1850 to address the labor needs of the Gold Rush. The immigrants soon branched out to jobs in agriculture and also made up a large group of railroad workers. As the Chinese became more successful, tensions with white Americans grew. White Californians grew increasingly wary of the cultural and ethnic differences.[2] The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first of many pieces of legislation put into place to keep people from China from entering the United States.[3] The government of California endeavored to prevent Chinese immigrants from working by requiring permits that they could not obtain, and legislation was passed to prevent naturalization.[2] Many turned to the laundry business, and in San Francisco about 89% of the laundry workers were of Chinese descent. It was often the only job they could find.[4]

In 1880, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance making it illegal to operate a laundry in a wooden building without a permit. The ordinance conferred upon the Board the discretion to grant or withhold the permits.[1] At the time, about 95% of the city's 320 laundries were operated in wooden buildings. Approximately two-thirds of those laundries were owned by Chinese people.[1] Although most of the city's wooden building laundry owners applied for a permit, only one permit was granted of the two hundred applications from any Chinese owner, while only one out of approximately eighty non-Chinese applicants were denied a permit.[5]

Yick Wo (Chinese: 益和; Jyutping: jik1 wo4) was a laundry facility owned by Lee Yick. Yick immigrated to California in 1861. After 22 years of managing the facility, provisions set out by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors said that he could not continue to run it in a wooden building.[1] He continued to operate his laundry and was convicted and fined ten dollars for violating the ordinance. He sued for a writ of habeas corpus after he was imprisoned in default for having refused to pay the fine.[1]

San Francisco ordinance[edit]

Order No. 156, passed May 26, 1880

SEC. 1. It shall be unlawful, from and after the passage of this order, for any person or persons to establish, maintain, or carry on a laundry within the corporate limits of the city and county of San Francisco without having first obtained the consent of the board of supervisors, except the same be located in a building constructed either of brick or stone.

SEC. 2. It shall be unlawful for any person to erect, build, or maintain, or cause to be erected, built, or maintained, over or upon the roof of any building now erected or which may hereafter be erected within the limits of said city and county, any scaffolding without first obtaining the written permission of the board of supervisors, which permit shall state fully for what purpose said scaffolding is to be erected and used, and such scaffolding shall not be used for any other purpose than that designated in such permit.

SEC. 3. Any person who shall violate any of the provisions of this order shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars, or by imprisonment in the county jail, not more than six months, or by both such fine and imprisonment.[1]

Issue before the Court[edit]

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.[1] The petitioner pointed out that prior to the new ordinance, the inspection and approval of laundries in wooden buildings had been left up to fire wardens. 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 laundries.[1]

Opinion of the Court[edit]

The Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Matthews, found that the administration of the ordinance in question was discriminatory and that there was therefore no need to even consider whether the ordinance itself was otherwise lawful. 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.[1] Justice Matthews 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 an 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.[1]

The Court held that while the law as written wasn't discriminatory, it had been applied with "an evil eye and an unequal hand" in singling out Chinese laundry business owner Lee Yick.[6]


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,[7] in practice allowing discriminatory treatment of African Americans. Yick Wo was never applied at the time to Jim Crow laws. However, by the 1950s, the Warren Court used 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.

Yick Wo is cited in Hirabayashi v. United States[8] to recognize that: "Distinctions between citizens solely based because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality. For that reason, legislative classification or discrimination based on race alone has often been held to be a denial of equal protection." However, the US Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Gordon Hirabayashi, the Japanese American who tested the curfew law and refused to register for the forced internment of people of Japanese descent during World War II.

In San Francisco there is a public school named Yick Wo Alternative Elementary School in honor of Yick Wo.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356 (1886). Public domain This article incorporates public domain material from this U.S government document.
  2. ^ a b Chinese Immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Acts. US Department of State, 2010.
  3. ^ Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). Harvard University Library.
  4. ^ "C-SPAN Landmark Cases | Season Two - Home". landmarkcases.c-span.org. Retrieved July 14, 2023.
  5. ^ "Yick Wo v. Hopkins – Case Brief Summary". www.lawnix.com. Retrieved May 3, 2016.
  6. ^ Owens, David (April 13, 2010). "Singled Out. A Problem in Enforcement?". University of North Carolina. Retrieved April 2, 2022.
  7. ^ Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).
  8. ^ Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81 (1943).

External links[edit]