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

Media and Public Debates

In all of its proceedings regarding Chinese residents, the federal courts in San Francisco operated under close public scrutiny. Chinese immigration remained one of the most volatile political issues in the late nineteenth century, and both political parties competed to demonstrate their zeal to confront the perceived problem. Newspapers covered in detail court cases involving Chinese, reflecting in their stories and editorial columns their political perspectives. Political cartoonists were particularly blunt and powerful, using caricature and visual allusions to make more pointed criticisms of the courts’ decisions. By 1887, a special agent from the Department of Justice warned that “Very grave charges are brought against Judge Sawyer and U.S. Attorney J.T. Carey, in connection with proceedings in these habeas corpus cases, by the Press of San Francisco, and by H.H. Scott, Deputy Collector of Customs . . . Two coordinate branches of Government are engaged in a hostile conflict, with the people and the press on the side against the courts, accusing them openly of all manner of bargain, intrigue and corruption, which threaten to do away with their usefulness and bring the administration into ridicule, contempt and utter disregard.”

Even with the constitutional protections of tenure and salary, federal judges were affected by the scathing criticism they endured. They and other government officials worried that the Chinese exclusion cases undermined popular respect for the courts. Judge Field warned his fellow judges in the
Chew Heong case, for example, that “oftentimes, . . . there is a sense of impatience in the public mind with judicial officers for not announcing the law to be what the community at the time wishes it should be. And nowhere has this feeling been more manifested than in California, and on no subject with more intensity than that which touches the immigration of Chinese laborers.” Most newspapers hesitated to accuse the judges of outright corruption, but frequently portrayed the courts as the weak dupes of the Chinese, unable to prevent their courts from being used to circumvent the exclusion policy. Judges also had their own reputations to consider and, in their private correspondence and their public judicial decisions, expressed their frustration that their decisions were misunderstood and deliberately misrepresented in the press.

In various ways, the judges sought to respond to the unjust criticism and defend their actions, though they did not abandon their unpopular interpretations of the exclusion law. The one exception may be Justice Stephen Field. Field, perhaps, had suffered the most severe consequences for his decisions in Chinese exclusion and civil rights cases. Field had wanted to be President but his judicial opinions regarding railroad regulation and the Chinese engendered bitter public opposition to his candidacy. As the political campaign for President gained force in the spring of 1884, Field defended his record in the Chinese cases, predicting “one of these days our good people will see their error and they will do me full justice. . . . They will then admit that a just judge could not ignore the law or treaties, or the Constitution, however offensive and detested the persons protected by them may have been.” Soon thereafter, the Democratic Party of California explicitly repudiated Field as a potential candidate. By September, when Chew Heong’s case came before the circuit court, Field’s interpretation of the law had shifted. Whether Field, in deciding against Chew Heong, responded to bitter public condemnation of the court is difficult to know, but he received more favorable reviews in the press thereafter.

The other judges coped with public criticism in other ways. Judge Ogden Hoffman lobbied congressional representatives and senators for legislative reforms that would keep the unpopular cases out of his court. He also used judicial opinions, most notably in
In re Tung Yeong, to explain and justify his decisions. The judges continued to profess their support for Chinese exclusion and, frequently, their dislike of Chinese immigrants, but reiterated the need to respect treaties and legal precedent. Judge Sawyer found the Supreme Court’s decision in Chew Heong particularly gratifying in light of the unfavorable public opinion. In a letter to Judge Matthew Deady, Sawyer wrote “it is some consolation, after all the lying, abuse, threatening of impeachment, etc. as to our construction of the Chinese Restriction Act, and the grand glorification of brother Field for coming out here and so easily, promptly, and thoroughly setting down on us and setting us right on that subject, to find that we are not so widely out of our senses after all.” He expressed the hope that “I guess time will bring us out about right.”


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