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

The Judicial Process: A Chronology

September 25, 1884

Chew Heong, through his attorneys William Hoff Cook and Thomas D. Riordan, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. Circuit Court of California. The petition asked the court to determine if Captain Hayward, master of the steamship
Mariposa, had unlawfully detained Chew Heong on board the ship and refused to allow him to land in San Francisco.

Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Sawyer issued the writ of habeas corpus on the same day and ordered Captain Hayward to produce “the body of said Chew Heong” on September 26 for a hearing to determine whether he was illegally imprisoned.

September 26, 1884

Captain Hayward of the
Mariposa filed a return to the writ, confirming that he had Chew Heong in custody under orders of the collector of the port at San Francisco. U.S. Attorney Samuel G. Hilborn, who assumed direction of the government’s case, filed an intervention, claiming that the public had a substantial interest in the proceedings, which he was obligated to protect. The intervention was a common procedure in such cases since the federal government, not the master of the steamship, was the true party, represented by the federal collector of the port.

On the same day, both parties filed an “Agreed Statement of Facts,” allowing the court to focus on the question of the type of proof required of Chinese to be exempt from the exclusion law.

The full panel of the circuit court conducted the hearing in Chew Heong’s case.

September 29, 1884

Justice Field issued his decision, holding that Chew Heong was not entitled to land in the United States unless he had the required certificate. Lorenzo Sawyer, with consulting judges Hoffman and Sabin, dissented, but Field’s decision prevailed since he was the presiding Supreme Court justice.

Justice Field discharged the writ of habeas corpus, meaning the court had completed its review of the alleged illegal imprisonment. He remanded Chew Heong to Captain Hayward’s custody for return to Honolulu, the port of origin for his trip to San Francisco.

Because of the dissenting opinions of the other judges, the court issued a certificate of a division of opinion, which allowed Chew Heong’s attorneys to appeal Field’s decision to the Supreme Court.

September 30, 1884

The circuit court issued a stay of its previous order remanding Chew Heong to Captain Hayward’s custody, to allow Chew Heong to remain in the United States while his appeal was decided by the Supreme Court. The court also allowed Chew Heong to be released on bail during the appeal, allowing him to leave the ship.

October 1, 1884

Attorneys for Chew Heong filed a writ of error for review by the Supreme Court, arguing that the circuit court was mistaken in its interpretation of the 1884 law.

October 30, 1884

The case was argued before the Supreme Court. The Court used its discretion to advance the case on the docket, responding to the government’s request to have a determinative ruling on the reach of the new law as soon as possible.

December 8, 1884

In a 7–2 decision, the Supreme Court overruled Justice Field’s decision in the circuit court. Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote the majority opinion and Justices Field and Bradley dissented. Chew Heong was free to stay in the United States.


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