Chy Lung v. Freeman

The Case: U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning the authority of the national government

Date: Decided on October 1, 1875

Significance: Based on principles of federalism, the Chy Lung decision put limitations on the extent to which the states might restrict the admission of persons into the country.

When Chy Lung, a subject of the emperor of China, arrived in San Francisco, immigration officials classified her and twenty other women as “lewd and debauched.” In order for the women to be admitted, California law required a bond of five hundred dollars in gold from each of them. Unable to obtain the money, and refusing to return to China, the women were held as prisoners in the custody of San Francisco’s sheriff. The state’s high court upheld the constitutionality of the statute.

The Supreme Court, however, ruled unanimously that the statute was “in conflict with the Constitution of the United States, and therefore void.”Writing the rationale for the decision, Justice Samuel F. Miller explained that Congress, not the states, was empowered to enact legislation concerning the admission of persons from other nations. Although states could make reasonable and necessary regulations concerning paupers and convicted criminals, this particular statute went far beyond what was appropriate, and it had the potential of embroiling the United States in quarrels with foreign nations. Its “manifest purpose,” moreover, was simply to obtain money. The Court ordered, therefore, that thewomenmust be released.

Thomas Tandy Lewis

Further Reading

  • Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. New York: Viking Press, 2003. 
  • McClain, Charles J. In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle Against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. 

See also: Anti-Chinese movement; Chae Chan Ping v. United States; Chin Bak Kan v. United States; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese immigrants; Fong YueTing v. United States; Supreme Court, U.S.

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