History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  Chew Heong v. United States: Chinese Exclusion and the Federal Courts
Learn about the case -- historical background and documents

Lawyers’ Arguments and Strategies

Attorneys for Chew Heong

The attorneys for Chew Heong, led by Thomas Riordan, argued that the Exclusion Act of 1884 did not override the previous judicial decisions allowing exempt Chinese to present other evidence when it proved impossible for them to obtain the required certificate. Riordan emphasized that not only the federal courts but also the Secretary of the Treasury had consistently ruled that a rigid interpretation of the requirement for a certificate violated the Treaty of 1880 and basic principles of justice. The law could not require the impossible, Riordan said. In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Riordan quoted Justice Stephen Field’s earlier opinions about the need to abide by the treaty and to interpret laws reasonably.

If precedent and the treaty were in his favor, Riordan had a bit more difficulty in confronting congressional intent and the language of the law, both of which appeared to lend support to the government’s case. Riordan emphasized that Congress had not expressly overruled the federal courts’ decisions nor had it intended to nullify the 1880 treaty. In fact, Riordan emphasized, the statute’s supporters had explicitly affirmed their support of the treaty. Riordan relied on a close and rather technical reading of the 1884 law to avoid the language regarding certificates as the “only evidence permissible” to establish prior residence with a close and rather technical reading of the law’s wording. He argued the law acknowledged two classes of exempt laborers, those who had lived in the United States at the time of the treaty but had no certificates and those who were prior residents and had return certificates. The clause making the certificate the only acceptable evidence only applied to the latter, he argued.

The government’s attorneys

U.S. Attorney Samuel Hilborn before the circuit court and Assistant Attorney General William A. Maury before the Supreme Court downplayed the importance of the Treaty of 1880. If two interpretations of a statute were possible, the government conceded that judges should choose the one that conformed to the treaty, but in this case, argued Maury, only one interpretation was possible. Both the plain language of the statute of 1884 and the purpose of the law indicated that Congress intended to apply the certificate requirement to
all Chinese laborers. In recommending the bill, the congressional committee insisted that the country needed more stringent procedures to combat widespread evasion of the law and the congestion of the courts’ dockets with the Chinese habeas corpus cases. The final wording of the act was clear and explicit, argued Maury, allowing no other reasonable interpretation: every Chinese laborer must have a certificate, regardless of the circumstances. The law might work a hardship for certain individuals, conceded Maury, but it was not up to the courts to alleviate that problem. So, too, the law might violate the treaty, but that did not make it any less binding. Maury believed the law could be interpreted to be in harmony with the treaty but insisted that if the 1884 law conflicted with the treaty, the statute must be upheld as the most recent indication of the will of the sovereign legislature. The government portrayed the circuit and district court judges who dissented from Field’s opinion as “carried away by . . . sentiment” and unduly swayed by a “misguided solicitude for the honor of the Government.” While seeming to express admiration for the “noble manner in which [the judges] stand up for these Chinese against an inflamed public opinion,” the government attorneys left no doubt that the judges’ concerns were ill placed as “the alien has no constitutional right to set foot on our shore except on the terms Congress has prescribed.” It was the country, not the Chinese, that the courts should protect.


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