Asakura v. City of Seattle

The Case: U.S. Supreme Court ruling on priority of treaties over state laws
Date: Decided on May 26, 1924
Significance: The Asakura ruling provided a relatively liberal interpretation of treaties with foreign countries that guarantee the civil rights of their citizens residing in the United States.
R. Asakura, a subject of the Japanese empire, operated a pawnbroker business in Seattle, Washington. In 1921, the city issued an ordinance requiring pawnbrokers to obtain a license and stipulating that only U.S. citizens were eligible to acquire the license. In a civil action against the city, Asakura argued that the ordinance was invalid because it violated the U.S.-Japanese treaty of 1911, which guaranteed that the citizens of each country would have the rights “to travel . . . to own or lease and occupy shops . . . to carryontrade . . . upon the same terms as native citizens or subjects.” Washington State’s high court upheld the validity of the ordinance.
The Supreme Court, however, reversed the decision and struck down the ordinance. Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Pierce Butler began by observing that an established treaty was part of the “supreme law of the land” and therefore superior to the laws of a state. Second, the ordinance made it impossible for Asakura to operate his business, thereby denying him the equal opportunity that was guaranteed in the treaty. Finally, in explaining why the business of pawnbroker was a form of “trade” specified in the treaty, Butler wrote:
Treaties are to be construed in a broad and liberal spirit, and, when two constructions are possible, one restrictive of rights that may be claimed under it and the other favorable to them, the latter is to be preferred.
Thomas Tandy Lewis

Further Reading
Aust, Anthony. Modern Treaty Law and Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Reuter, Paul. Introduction to the Law of Treaties. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1993.
See also: Alien land laws; Asian immigrants; Japanese immigrants; Supreme Court, U.S.; Washington State.

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