In re Tiburcio Parrott

The Case: U.S. district court decision on racial discrimination

Date: Decided in 1880

Significance: In the Parrott ruling, a U.S. district court in California prohibited the application of a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited the employment of Chinese persons in the state.

In 1880, section 19 of the new California constitution prohibited the employment of “any Chinese or Mongolian,” and it also authorized the legislature to enact laws to this effect. Irish teamster Dennis Kearney held large rallies to promote anti-Chinese sentiments, and a resulting criminal statute made the employment of Chinese a misdemeanor. The president of a silver mining company, Tiburcio Parrott, believing the law was unconstitutional, refused to discharge his Chinese employees. Arrested and charged, he petitioned a U.S. district court for a writ of habeas corpus, which was granted.

Two district judges, Ogden Hoffman and Lorenso Sawyer, held that both the constitutional provision and the statute were inconsistent with rights guaranteed in the Burlingame Treaty with China (1868) and therefore violated Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. Because treaties were part of the “supreme law of the land,” their provisions were superior to state constitutions and state statutes. Although this was a major victory for the Chinese of California, the state legislature responded by passing discriminatory laws, restricting where the Chinese might live and prohibiting them from obtaining licenses in various businesses.

Thomas Tandy Lewis

Further Reading

  • Kens, Paul. “Civil Liberties, Chinese Laborers, and Corporations.” In Law in theWestern United States, edited by Gordon M. Bakken. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000. 
  • 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; Burlingame Treaty of 1868; California; Capitation taxes; Chinese immigrants; Citizenship; Due process protections; Immigration law; Supreme Court, U.S.

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